By Iris Wiener
Writing a piece about a 1967 adult-ed writing class in a high school in Levittown was no stretch for playwright Richard Greenberg, an East Meadow native, who incorporated many aspects of Long Island into his new play, “The Babylon Line.” The teacher of that adult-ed class (who is played by How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor) lives in Greenwich Village, and reverse commutes once each week on the Long Island Rail Road’s Babylon line to Wantagh. Many nuggets of Long Island landmarks and lore are mentioned as “The Babylon Line” transpires, giving it an extra layer of nostalgia and enjoyment for theatergoers from the area.
Greenberg lived in East Meadow for 18 years, and continued to visit there for 25 years after moving to Manhattan, where he penned more than 25 plays that have premiered on and Off-Broadway. In 2003 he won a Tony Award for “Take Me Out,” which focuses on the aftermath of a Major League Baseball player announcing that he is gay. More recently, his plays “The Assembled Parties” and “My Mother’s Brief Affair,” which starred Judith Light and Linda Lavin, respectively, hit the Broadway stage.
“Sometimes I want to go to places I know because it’s such a head start,” he says of choosing Long Island for his latest locale. “You don’t have to go looking them up and do actor-y sort of exercises with yourself about what it would be like to live in Natick, Massachusetts.”
The playwright grew up on Pontiac Road (“not to be confused with Pontiac Place,” he laughs), and spent much of his childhood at the East Meadow Library. “I would spend entire weekends there, sometimes hours and hours,” he says of the place, which is touched on in “The Babylon Line”. “It was also the nicest building, very modernist after they redid it. There wasn’t that much notable architecture, and that looked cool to me. I used to love to sit there and gather too many books and read them. I’m still sad that there are no more card catalogues!”
Undoubtedly, the vast number of books he read informed his plays; in “The Babylon Line,” the class’ students consist of a trio of housewives more set on enjoying a social gathering than on the subject matter, two men who are intriguingly vague, and a late entry who is outside the norm of the average Long Island housewife.
“When I was growing up, adult-ed was a very big part of the lives of my parents and aunt and uncle who lived two doors away, and the neighbors,” he remembers. “It was an enormous social movement, or at least an aspect of their social life that was crucial.” Greenberg says that as a child he used to listen to the women surrounding his world, and it helped him construct the play’s themes of feminism and self-discovery.
“There was a lot of neighborliness [in the ‘60s],” he says. “People were friends with their neighbors, which at a certain point struck me as peculiar. I thought, ‘So you’re all friends, just because you happen to live near each other? That’s strange.’ But it was kind of pleasant. Back then, people used to have those screens that they’d pull up on a bench and they’d take movies of their vacations, and people would gather in the driveway and watch other people’s vacations. It was pleasant. There was a lot of talk, and I was the kid who tagged along, or also sat at the table and just soaked it all up. Your secrets were not safe with me,” he laughs, “because years from then they were going to be at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. They had no idea!”
The impetus for much of “The Babylon Line,” which stars Josh Radnor and Elizabeth Reaser, may also stem from his interest in women, and their differences from men. “I have a lot of women friends, and I find them interesting, so I write about them,” Greenberg says, remembering when he first noticed how the genders differ sociologically.
“I was a dramatics camp counselor for a month when I was 19, and it was really interesting to see the difference between the five-year-old boys and the five-year-old girls. There was nothing more charming than those five-year-old boys because they were simple, but they were life-loving. They had everything good about being male and nothing bad. They hadn’t developed, so they were adorable. But the girls were already assessing, they were already trying to figure it out. It was revelatory when I was 19 to see this difference. It was at a point when it should have been too early for everyone to have been so thoroughly socialized. It was a really striking contrast.”
Although Greenberg lives in Manhattan, he doesn’t often return to Long Island these days. Nevertheless, he didn’t need to conduct any research when it came time to write lines about Levitt houses, the “new” East Meadow library, and Times Square Stores (local staples of yore).
“I’ve heard that people are discussing the references to Long Island in the ladies room,” he says. “There are people who come because they ride the Babylon line. I used to love riding it too, there was something about it that was so calming. People are coming from the place itself, so they respond. That’s great! If somebody laughs at the reference to Jahn’s Ice Cream Parlor…oh my!”
"The Babylon Line" is playing Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, 150 W. 65th St., Manhattan. To purchase tickets visit www.Telecharge.com.