The first words spoken in Richard Greenberg’s The Babylon Line, which opened tonight in a fatally mild Lincoln Center Theater production directed by Terry Kinney, are “The End.” This is a daring literary gesture, neatly introducing some of the play’s themes: It is about writing and history and the fruitful tension between them. Unfortunately, because The Babylon Line is a play, not a novel or a semiotics paper, the gesture deflates as quickly as a pricked balloon, and comes to seem less like a clever feint than a premature epitaph for a story that fails to thrive.
That failure is way too overdetermined to be totally accidental. Rather, it suggests that Greenberg wrote The Babylon Line as a kind of obstacle course to test his ability to rescue a play from as many unpromising constraints as he could put upon it. Like a lot of his nearly 30 previous stage works, it features a narrator, in this case a writer named Aaron Port, whom we meet at age 86 as he reminisces about events that took place 48 years earlier. That’s already two roadblocks keeping the audience at a distance from the story, and the play has barely begun. Once it gets moving, or creeping, the subject of Aaron’s reminiscence, a writing class, proves to be yet another roadblock. Back in 1967, at a time when his only credit was a story in a literary journal and he was seething with frustrated ambition, Aaron taught an adult-education class in Levittown, Long Island, for three bored Jewish matrons, two semiconscious men, and a sexy wack-job housewife named Joan with talent but no boundaries. Most of the play consists of these students reading, or not reading, or commenting upon the stories they’ve produced for class.
Unlike them, Greenberg is a terrific writer, with tons of craft at his disposal. Some of his best plays — certainly Take Me Out and The Assembled Parties — mix disparate modes expertly, whether alternating narration and action or contrasting different versions of history. Both tactics are attempted here, but fall flat because the thing remembered is so banal. (The climax of Act One occurs when Joan reads a short story that bothers one of the matrons.) As its title suggests, The Babylon Line also recalls Greenberg’s long-term interest in the cookie-cutter milieu of the Long Island suburbs he himself grew up in; one of the ladies, here a minor figure, is the title character of his 2015 play Our Mother’s Brief Affair — an infra joke that goes nowhere. Still, it’s unfortunate that the smug conformism and braying confidence of this petite bourgeoisie are the most confidently rendered aspects of the play, both in the writing and in the performances by Randy Graff, Julie Halston, and Maddie Corman. Corman’s reading of her “story,” in which a family visit to Europe reveals that “Venice is a study in contrasts,” is a study in comic pathos.
It’s also an example of the way Greenberg winds even his best material into knots that mitigate its effectiveness. His portrait of the Jewish matrons is so amusingly offensive that Aaron, in his narration, has to apologize for it, retracting his description of them as “mastodons … feeding and lowing.” So much for the one funny thing in the play. (Well, the biggest laugh actually goes to a one-liner about William Levitt, the builder of Levittown: “The man was a developer. That’s not a person you respect.”) Meanwhile what is supposed to be the main story, Aaron and the Wack Job, is a nonstarter, in part because we know that Aaron will never respond to Joan’s outrageous propositioning (he’s married and a good Jewish boy) and in part because Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Reaser cannot find anything convincing to play in their self-consciously literary characters. Anyway, whenever something does seem about to happen between them, it’s as if the class bell rings, the drama is dismissed, and the unwelcome narration returns like a hall monitor.
Eventually, one last roadblock completes the job of undramatizing the play: In a very long postscript, Aaron tells us what happened to each of the characters over the next several decades. Some of this is amusing, in an obvious way, but it reduces what were already faint and murky conflicts to purple prose. I have to believe that Greenberg knows this. At one point he has Frieda Cohen, the most peremptory of the matrons, ask why the only literature that critics like “is the kind with violence and conflict.” Aaron answers: “Well if it is true I suppose it’s because they’re what makes long forms possible. Take these qualities away and you have at most a lyric poem which can be lovely but is outside the mesh of narrative.”
“Mesh of narrative”: What a lovely way to put it. He should write a book.
The Babylon Line is at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through January 22.