THE BABYLON LINE After Line After Line After Line After Line After Line After

What follows is a pithy textual representation of The Babylon Line, Richard Greenberg’s oh-so Greenberg-ian new play currently running at Lincoln Center’s off-Broadway Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater through January 22:[1]

Well-written talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk – more than a few lines of exceedingly intellectual and often comical wit and observations – talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk talk

See how I just seemingly wrote a lot without actually saying anything at all? Well I’m just following Richard’s lead, because that’s a fairly apt description of his work throughout the play. His undeniably large brain has an undeniable way with words – especially when sharing undeniably insightful insights regarding the human condition – but Greenberg here seems more interested in stuffing the play with as lengthy of a litany as possible of these types of overly written yet still eloquently-phrased but ultimately redundant yet still enlightened thoughts, and less interested in developing his characters into anything more than either excessively familiar mere sketches for the ensemble, and indistinguishable vehicles for his words for the two main characters.[2] Though late in his career, Greenberg falls into a common rookie trapping: confusing a character talking a lot with legitimately developing that character.

The rub with the entirety of this analysis, however, is the sneaking suspicion that Greenberg may have potentially intended for his play to bear these traits. By adopting the tired dramaturgical convention of the story literally being told to the audience by his main character – a fellow writer – the work immediately feels autobiographical in a way, as if the person (Radnor) telling us this story is simply an actor standing in for Richard Greenberg, the one we all know is the real person telling us the story (his dramaturgy calling for members of the cast to knowingly switch in and out of multiple characters reinforces this roleplaying idea). And since the overarching plight of his dramatic representation on stage concerns his lifelong inability to tell this story from his past in a coherent and focused way – which even explicitly touches upon his inability to depict the cast of characters in his life as anything besides the aforementioned caricatures that they seem to be here – The Babylon Line could be a subtle (in terms of intention, NOT execution) experiment in dramaturgical form being totally dictated by content.

Heck, someone in the play even says, “Talking is all there is – there is nothing else.” In that moment, I was honestly convinced Greenberg was trolling me. Note how this quote expresses a cognitively stimulating concept that’s nevertheless almost obscured by the excessively redundant verbosity of its phrasing. Once again, this accurately describes the majority of The Babylon Line, but again, maybe that’s the point? And if so, does that make this mainstream, off-Broadway play less worthy of criticism but rather commendation for daring to purposefully be off-putting, ESPECIALLY at a place like Lincoln Center that can often be mistaken for an old folk’s home thanks to the makeup of its patrons?

As someone who always values when artists knowingly risk the widespread disapproval of audiences, I honestly have a difficult time answering that question, which is why I’ve tried allowing the content of this piece – The Babylon Line – to dictate the form it took. Have you noticed how my writing here hopefully conformed to the traits that I respectfully lambasted in the play? Did you sincerely believe that I thought, “His undeniably large brain has an undeniable way with words – especially when sharing undeniably insightful insights regarding the human condition – but Greenberg here seems more interested in stuffing the play with as lengthy of a litany as possible of these types of overly written yet still eloquently-phrased but ultimately redundant yet still enlightened thoughts…” was an acceptable paragraphs-length HALF of a sentence? Now that you know the writing style of this piece was intentional, does it change your opinion of it? Tough question, right?

Well, welcome to my predicament with The Babylon Line! Though I always enjoy spending time in the company of a writer who can captures in words his profound literary intellect, and as much as I would praise Greenberg’s experimental intention if it was actually intentional, I still have a hard time defending a play whose dramaturgy seems to revolve around communicating the power that recorded stories possess to bring the past back to life before the audience’s very eyes (as often happens here) – which in turn can shape the past, present, AND future (symbolized by the scene transition trains that convey movement across space and time) – when that very same play fails to communicate any of the characters’ stories in a comprehensible manner due to too much tangential talking talking talking talking talking talking talking – okay, you get the idea. As always, a play containing a lot of good writing is not always a good play.

fullsizeoutput_1d19
I’ve long adored Lincoln Center Theater’s signature hand drawn art, but perhaps a more dynamic image could have been chosen? Then again, this may have also been a heavily meta decision: the guy holding the book – AKA the storyteller, AKA Greenberg – is clearly talk talk talking not FOR (since he’s facing away from them) but definitely in the presence of houses that look an often lot like raked theatre seats, with only one person ‘in the audience’ being able to stay focused on his endless pontifications. IS IT ALL INTENTIONAL?!?!

FOOTNOTES

[1] Basically unrelated: Lincoln Center theater’s three spaces – this, the Vivian Beaumont ‘on Broadway,’ and LCT3 are some of the finest houses in all of New York. Carry on.

[2] Though by no means could even the greatest performances in the world totally redeem this flawed text, I should mention that the ensemble is uniformly strong – special shout out to Julie Halston’s customary infectiously hammy joy – whereas the two leads – Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Reaser – don’t come off as well, but they may have been hampered by their characters’ inconsistent textual portrayals. A little more blame can be placed at the feet of director Terry Kinney; he does nothing to elevate the text.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s