The Seven Wonders of THE BABYLON LINE

Photo: Jeremy Daniel

Remember the Seven Wonders of Babylon? They involved a pyramid, garden, statue, temple, mausoleum, gate and The Colossus of Rhodes. Aside from that pyramid, they’re all gone.

Cheer up! Richard Greenberg has given us seven new wonders in THE BABYLON LINE. It’s well worth a trip to the Newhouse to see the septet of splendors. They include:

1—A terrific memory play told by Mr. Port about the adult ed class in creative writing that he taught through the final days of 1967. His half-dozen students challenged, frustrated, annoyed, bored and but mostly intrigued him.

Greenberg has Mr. Port detail the smallest of their small talk and makes it loom large. We’ve all read between the lines. Here everyone reads between comments and gleans more about everyone else.

Will Mr. Port disprove the odious adage that “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach?” If one student is to be believed, he can’t teach, either. We’ll see, we’ll see.

Little by little, one class at a time, the students come alive. Some can’t put on paper what they’d like to convey, but they certainly can say it aloud with one exception: Marc — Michael Oberholtzer — is taciturn and avoids taking his turn. But if conversation were writing, some students would already be represented in Barnes & Noble.

2—Mr. Port is played with the utmost honesty by Josh Radnor. He creates a teacher who tries hard to stay calm after enduring his students’ incompetent attempts. How he desperately searches for something positive to say. From the start, he often speaks directly to the audience. “I may not come off well,” he mourns; you may come away disagreeing. Mister, we could use a man like Aaron Port once again.

3—He’s not the only astonishment in the cast that director Terry Kinney has steered superbly. Let’s give a special nod, however, to Randy Graff, who gives the Best Featured Performance in a Play in the seven months that the current season has given us.

Graff is Frieda Cohen, a Levittown housewife, mother and student. When Frieda’s first question to Mr. Port is “Do we actually do writing?” she makes it appear to be a genuine and reasonable query. We’re initially inclined to view her as a fool, but we’ll see she certainly isn’t.

Soon she’s acting as if she’s been appointed as the class’s second-in-command. In fact, in Graff’s ever-so-confident performance, you can see her feeling that second is one station beneath her.

Most of the time, Frieda’s a busybody who’s always busy making seemingly blithe conversation that turns into an interrogation. In a good cop-bad cop situation, she’d be the latter, grilling a suspect she’s sure is guilty even if all others think innocent. “I know a roman a clef when I see one!” she roars to one student. It’s a terrific line, but she has an even better zinger that she blow-darts to Mr. Port.

4—Elizabeth Reaser is Joan, who at play’s start holds her cards not merely close to her chest, but seemingly inside her where they’ve been implanted. More to the point, Reaser displays the pain from the scapel’s incision.

Joan came to Levittown because she wanted “an ordinary life.” Trouble is, she got it, and 18 years later, she admits to being “acutely repressed.”

She’ll loosen up, however. Her talk of ghosts seems a little weird (but let’s remember that Levittown is only eight miles from Amityville). Soon she’s walking so decisively that her high heels are torturing the floor. Joan is intent on being Teacher’s Pet – but we’ll see if she wants petting from Mr. Port or even more.

5—Maddie Corman is quietly hilarious as Anna Cantor, especially when she reads aloud about her vacation; it’s supposed to be an essay but it more resembles a postcard. When she tells of Venice, she says “It really teaches you — ” before she pauses to turn the page. My, are our appetites whetted for what she’ll say! Wait until you hear what the next word is.

Don’t miss how Corman positions herself on her chair when Mr. Port approaches, unaware that her legs are flirting with him. But Anna Cantor isn’t all fun and mind-games. Corman is very moving when she says how she needs “something of my own” apart from her husband.

6—Julie Halston’s Midge Braverman is greatly amusing when she  expresses unadulterated pride in reading her own essays or appraising someone’s else’s. No, Halston doesn’t say “Come on – admit it – I’m right,” but her face makes clear that she’s sure she is.

7—Frank Wood makes good on his surname, because he’s been given a wooden character to play, one who knows he’ll never be the star of the class.

By the way, if that musical of THE HONEYMOONERS ever gets on, Wood, a dead ringer for Art Carney, is a natural for Ed Norton. But I’d like to think that he’ll be unavailable for some time because THE BABYLON LINE will move from the Newhouse to a Broadway theater and run for many, many moons.