Joe DiPietro’s new adaption of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt arrives at the La Jolla Playhouse starring Matthew Broderick, who brings a lot of pizzazz to the role. Though the writing is charming and breezy, the play’s titular character, who believes in nothing, ultimately isn’t compelling enough to warrant our attention.
In the bustling fictitious town of Zenith, middle-class businessman George Babbitt (Broderick) drudges through a stale marriage and work, finding relief only in the morning kiss from his 6-year-old daughter (Anna Chlumsky) and his sexual fantasy for a young woman. Babbitt has little regard for his own life, and — other than his best friend Paul (Francis Jue) — no one thinks Babbitt’s life has much value either. When he meets a young client (Genevieve Angelson) who resembles his dream girl, something stirs in Babbitt. He discovers an oratory expertise within himself and suddenly begins to preach to the common people in town. Unfortunately, since he has no true beliefs or moral compass of his own, he preaches on behalf of whomever will personally benefit him the most.
Playwright DiPietro recognizes and clearly states the ordinariness and ennui of his main character through narration and Babbitt’s inaction. When Babbitt has his mid-life crisis and becomes a populist politician, he still has no convictions — a motivation that feels empty. He only sabotages his platform to protect a friend from the law and believes in the new cause as little as the old.
The play also offers little insight into Babbit and distances the audience from his arc by having multiple characters act as storytellers. Because the audience already identifies these characters — played by Matt McGrath, Ann Harada, Julie Halston, and Chris Myers — as narrators, it’s hard to see any of them as individual characters with their own storylines.
Broderick has always excelled in everyman roles, and his Babbitt is no exception. Sadly, the play mostly wastes the talents of the rest of the cast, since it doesn’t give them layers upon which to build. Chlumsky makes great use of her voice playing both a 6-year-old child and a jaded wealthy socialite, and Jue finds warmth in Paul’s friendship with his childhood friend.
Director Christopher Ashley keeps the action flowing with a rotating stage and multiple levels. When Babbitt falls in with a bohemian crowd and learns to dance the Charleston and practice free love, the action picks up with boisterous choreography by Stephen Buescher. The set, by Walt Spangler, is slick and antique-looking, with bookshelves and other furniture in white wood that turns various vibrant colors thanks to Cha See’s lighting.
When Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt was published in 1922, it may have been seen as biting satire that pulled the curtain back on a political circus, where government representatives serve no one but themselves. Today, our leaders don’t hide their self-aggrandizement and greed. The world has moved past the shock factor of Babbitt, and this production is proof.