WESTWOOD, CALIFORNIA - By the Waters of the Babylon brings to the Geffen stage two excellent actors and two fine performances in a play that offers great promise but, in spite of one wonderfully explosive scene, feels as if its parts don’t quite come together into a logical whole. But that shouldn’t stop you from an evening of interesting theater — worth seeing for the great performances and the intense drama of the second act.
Start in an overgrown garden with a day laborer who rummages in a shed for tools and a dry, disappointed widow who cannot remember where she put her late husband’s ashes. Biblical title, garden, snakes. Is it that garden? As she questions the Hispanic laborer casually and learns that he comes from Cuba…oh, she had a friend who went to a particular bar in Cuba. Yes, he knows that place — their specialty a drink with rum and mint, and there is actually mint growing among the weeds. She wants to taste that drink; she goes to find rum and ice, and you feel that this is going to be more than a weed-this-section conversation. The story begins.
Not only has she misplaced her husband’s ashes, but we know that the widow was happy to be rid of the guy and that the neighbors are watching her and call her a slut, and so we are in biblical territory which bodes of universal truths. There is passion in the mix of man, woman, and rum, and now we wait for revelations.
As the rum kicks in, he tells a story which dominates the first act: his revolutionary family, his great novel (he’s not just a weed-puller but a Cuban intellectual). There is long talk of the Cuban revolution which brings advances in education and health care — but with advance also comes censorship — and they emasculate his work of art. They censor his novel to extinction. His escape to Miami is laced with tragedy… and, of course, at the end of the first act, her compassion and lonely need for someone to touch bring them together. You return to your seat after first-act intermission to find a naked man in bed. Pure Tennessee Williams…but not quite…or if only…
What’s wonderful about the gardener (a fine performance by Demian Bechir of Weeds) is his transition from ordinary day worker to passionate novelist; and she moves from dry -stick widow to almost deranged woman…a strong performance by Shannon Cochran.
Indeed, the second act opens post-coital, but the passion is drained; she’s shifted in character. She reveals the source of her pain and something uncomfortable happens. It may be unfair to make the comparison with Tennessee Williams who so starkly portrays passionate women and desperate men — and this has the conflict which should make it into a powerful play. Indeed the author, Robert Schenkkan, is a Pulitzer Prize playwright, but the woman we see in this act doesn’t quite fit the story that has wounded her. Even though we have a man and a woman who have each been cheated by life, their passion seems not quite real. Something doesn’t connect, and her own guilt seems not quite to match her statements. Why the neighbors suspect her — does it seem logical?
Yet one explosive scene is edge-of-the-seat good, and at the end of the play…well, I’ll invite you to make that judgment for yourself. Too much explanation? Not enough passionate interaction? The play pulls you in, but when you finish, you walk out knowing that you have had a significant evening of theater but that something was missing. Makes for good discussion over coffee.
I have a feeling that this play will go through a transition and a revision, yet to see these two fine actors in the explosive second act scene is exciting.
By the Waters of the Babylon at the Geffen Playhouse
10886 Le Conte Avenue
Westwood Village, California