‘I don’t miss being young,” playwright and essayist Richard Greenberg insisted offhandedly the other day, “although I always thought that I would.” Indeed, he reflected, “even incredibly intelligent and wise young people haven’t had the experience of time passing”— time that he views as essential for an appreciation not just of human nature but also of the rootedness of people in a particular place.
For Greenberg, that locale is, inescapably, New York. As his latest play, “The Babylon Line,” is about to open and his first book of essays has just been published to acclaim, Greenberg has become one of the most prominent Jewish voices of our time on the state of the city; he is also one of the only ones who can make a dirge for the New York of so many of our youths seem oddly bracing and refreshing — and quite a bit comical besides.
After all, times have changed: The country will soon be ruled by a plutocrat in a penthouse high above New York City whose values seem opposed to those of the majority of the people who live 66 floors beneath him. The Carnegie Deli, a magnet for both tourists and New Yorkers of all ethnicities, is closing. Manhattan, once a place for mom-and-pop businesses of all kinds, is turning, like the other boroughs, into a place of chain and big box stores. So who can blame Greenberg for being more than a little nostalgic?
Greenberg, 58, lives in Chelsea; he leaves his apartment as seldom as possible. He has penned two dozen plays, many of which have overtly Jewish themes, although his best known, and probably best ones — the breakout 1988 success, “Eastern Standard,” the 1998 Pulitzer finalist “Three Days of Rain” and the 2002 Tony-winning “Take Me Out” — do not.
Directed by Terry Kinney, “The Babylon Line,” set in 1967, centers on a failed novelist from Greenwich Village, Aaron Port (Josh Radnor, who played the Jewish dinner guest in Ayad Akhtar’s “Disgraced” on Broadway and Ted Mosby on the long-running CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother”). Port takes the Long Island Rail Road from Manhattan to Levittown each week to teach a writing class for adult learners. The mostly Jewish housewives in his class include a woman named Joan (Elizabeth Reaser), with whom he becomes especially close as they bond over their mutual disappointments in their marriages and their lives.
The playwright’s just-published essays, “Rules for Others to Live By: Comments and Self-Contradictions” (Blue Rider Press), are tongue-in-check, fictionalized or both. He offers his ironic reflections on a city in which developers are erecting “abandoned buildings” that foreign investors are snapping up but not actually living in, and in which architectural “mediocrity” lurks around every corner. Greenberg realizes that most of his friends and acquaintances “feel trapped,” because they live with a “memory of money” — desperately trying to recover their wealth, they forget their “corollary losses” of “health and hope and youth and friendship.” And he reflects on anti-Semitism in the works of Agatha Christie, G.K. Chesterton and F. Scott Fitzgerald, which ranges, he says, from the forgivably genteel (because they are part of an author’s “cultural dowry”) to the utterly sickening.
Reviewing the essay collection for The New York Times, Alex Witchel said that “seeing the world through his characters’ eyes is most often an unparalleled pleasure.”
The Jewishness of his work, Greenberg told The Jewish Week, is “indirect, in that it’s pervasive.”
“It’s not self-conscious in a thematic way,” he said. “It has to do with a certain rootedness.” He declined to go further, saying that when he thinks too much about why or how he writes, he risks “imitating someone else’s idea of you and becoming a self-parody.” But he is increasingly curious about Jewish religion; when a friend, Jason (who is mentioned in one of his essays) started to become more Jewishly observant, Greenberg read Mordechai Kaplan’s “Judaism as a Civilization” in order to understand his friend’s trajectory. (Greenberg describes himself in his book as one of the “full Reform, slacker Jews.”)
It saddens Greenberg acutely to see his forebears’ “mixed Jewish-American argot leaving the world, along with the point of view that it embodied.” He so misses the Yiddish inflections and cadences that he said that he “sometimes writes just for the pleasure of hearing them again.” Little wonder that his last play, “My Mother’s Brief Affair,” which opened in January at the Manhattan Theatre Club, starred Linda Lavin as a mother with a heavy outer-borough Jewish accent.
“The Babylon Line,” Greenberg said, is drawn from his childhood in East Meadow, L.I., where he lived in a Jewish neighborhood where its denizens had a shared history of leaving the city for the suburbs at a time of great tension between black and white residents.
Suburban New York middle-class Jewish life was a “thriving thing,” the playwright recalled, in which “you could be comfortable without being wealthy” and “neighborliness was very big,” in that people tended to be friends with their neighbors in a way, Greenberg noted, that is less usual these days. The city that they had left behind was, according to Greenberg, a “tantalizing but frightening place,” one that Mayor John Lindsay tirelessly — and, to many suburbanites’ minds, quite ironically — promoted as “Fun City.” In the play, Greenberg’s characters try to overcome both their own and their teacher’s inadequacies to give voice to their conflicted feelings about the time in which they live.
If only, one might think, they were writing now. In the wake of the presidential election, Greenberg said that his very environs have taken on a kind of mournful character. In Chelsea, he is part of what he calls a “community of misery — it feels like the aftermath of a catastrophe.” He joked that he wonders if he is partly responsible, given that he had a play at Lincoln Center when the terrorist attacks occurred on 9/11 (“Everett Beekin,” one of his most Jewish plays) and he has one there now.
Then again, he added, “the New York that I write about was filled with its own catastrophes. We tend to be nostalgic for times that we know that we survived.”
“The Babylon Line” opens Monday, Dec. 5 and runs through Jan. 22 at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. with Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. and Sunday matinees at 3 p.m. For tickets, $77-$87, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200 or visit telecharge.com.