How do we build a sense of self within the conformity of community? Is it possible to be an original thinker, or are we bound by the limits of expectation? And what happens when attention becomes more important than integrity? These questions are at the center of Joe DiPietro’s world-premiere adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s 1922 satire, Babbitt, now playing at the La Jolla Playhouse.
Despite the fact that its source material is more than 100 years old, the new play feels prescient. Originally conceived of during a material brainstorm session between director Christopher Ashley, playwright DiPietro, and star Matthew Broderick, the production follows George F. Babbitt, a real estate broker. Though he lives a comfortable and steady life in the fictional midwestern town of Zenith, Babbitt fears that something intangible is missing.
A man who finds himself settled solidly into middle age and the middle class, Babbitt is generally a good person, but he doesn’t stand for much; it is this propensity that has him flipping opinions on a dime to suit his momentary needs. “Let me swear to it and make it true,” he declares in Act 2, offering to perjure himself to save a friend. “The jury would believe me—an upstanding white man!”
Another time, he comments that “even common laborers should be paid as well as anyone” but then, observing his shocked audience, immediately recants: “I like them and all, but their wages must never interfere with the profits of stockholders.” When a series of unexpected circumstances cuts through his veil of complacency, Babbitt can’t resist the opportunity to go after his dream of becoming an orator, only to find that tripping boldly into a sexier, more interesting life doesn’t come without its consequences. The real question is: Can he recover what he has lost before it is too late?
Stage and screen actor Matthew Broderick leads the cast as the innately likable everyman George F. Babbitt. Broderick’s performance brings a certain evenness and relatability. The audience honestly believes, as we watch him interact with his family and friends, that he is well-intentioned, albeit flawed.
This is the magic of the script and Broderick’s performance: It is only when we begin to connect to the character—to live in the beats of his line delivery and to understand his thought-patterns and decision-making—that we realize how harmful his politicking has become. Why live a life that has “amounted to nothing” when people suddenly care what you have to say? The answer, it turns out, is because what we say and do matters.
The production also features a talented and tight ensemble, which includes Genevieve Angelson, Anna Chlumsky, Julie Halston, Ann Harada, Francis Jue, Matt McGrath, and Chris Myers, each of them tackling multiple roles. Ann Harada (as Babbitt’s wife Myra) and Chris Myers (as Babbitt’s 17-year-old son Ted) are particularly striking; their characters experience their own concurrent journeys, and we are invested in their successes and joys just as we are in Babbitt’s.
Each actor also serves to advance the plot with narrating lines as they watch Babbitt’s tale unfold from the stacks of an expansive, geometric, two-story library atrium envisioned by scenic designer Walt Spangler. At center stage, dual turntables are used to seamlessly shift the action from one location to another, dressed simply with purple plush lounges and a minimalist white dining set.
Creative team members such as lighting designer Cha See, costume designer Linda Cho, sound designer Leon Rothenberg, and co-composers Mark Bennett and Wayne Barker manage to make a story a century old feel, look, and sound as fresh as the script reveals it is.
After all, as playwright Joe DiPietro noted, the show covers all of the bases: American mores, politics, religion, capitalism, and advertising. “A lot has advanced in society, but a lot hasn’t,” he says. “I was literally shocked at some of the satire and targets that Sinclair Lewis shot at, because they are the same today.”
If it all hits close to home, perhaps the lessons are worth listening to as well.
Babbitt runs at the La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre through December 10.