Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Book Review: "The Babylon Line" by Richard Greenberg

Tony Award winner Richard Greenberg's new play, The Babylon Line is an intriguing, thought-provoking, and surprisingly emotional look at the lives of a group of suburban Long Island residents at the end of the 1960s, as they come together to participate in a writing class through an adult education program. Some of these people know each other, some merely know of each other, and not all of them intended to participate in a writing class—some were closed out of the classes they actually wanted to attend.

The teacher, Aaron, is a writer who once showed some promise but never delivered, despite his attempts to write every day. His failure causes him to take a job that forces him to commute from his New York City home to Levittown and teach a group of adults, the majority of whom have never written (and never had any desire to do so). These are people who would rather gossip and complain than put pen to paper, but little by little, some start to open up to the creative process, and their writing becomes more personal and therapeutic, and raise the hackles of their fellow students.

Aaron's most talented student, Joan, is a troubled housewife disliked by the other women in the class. She and Aaron, both in failing marriages, are drawn to one another through their love of reading and their desire to write, and Joan begins looking to Aaron as a life raft from the chaos of her life. But fear and ennui are powerful anchors.

The Babylon Line looks at the class over the course of a semester, and then follows each of the characters after the class is over to narrate what became of them. Greenberg has an ear for dialogue, and particularly captured the nuances of bored, angry, and self-righteous suburban housewives. Some of the characters are more well-developed than others, but they're all pretty fascinating, and you wonder what revelations will come from the students' stories.

Other than the new Harry Potter, it's been a long while since I've read a play. It required a little bit of an adjustment for me, since you must glean most of the plot from dialogue rather than description and imagery. I felt as if the plot took some time to build up steam, but once it did, it was amusing and thought-provoking, and the recaps of what happened to each character brought the sap out in me. And of course, like any good novel, there were times I wanted to shake the characters for their inaction, or for not saying what they were thinking.

I loved Greenberg's play Take Me Out, and The Babylon Line once again proves his talent. It would be interesting to see this performed some day, to see how everything takes shape on the stage. All in all, definitely a worthwhile read.

First to Read and Penguin provided me an advance copy of the play in exchange for an unbiased review. Thanks for making this available!

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