George F. Babbitt (Matthew Broderick) lounging with the young bohemians. Photo courtesy of La Jolla Playhouse
It’s one of those seminal American novels that high school students are assigned to read – or used to be assigned to read: Sinclair Lewis’ satirical “Babbitt” published in 1922. It viewed middle-class America as a society of benumbed conformists, a collective idling engine not to be pushed past the limits of convention. American drones (before there were drones) dreaming the American Dream. This was the Roaring Twenties, and those who did dare to venture beyond the prescribed norms were regarded as deviates, insurgents, socialists, liberals. It would take another world war a decade later to rally the troops, so to speak.
Lewis’ eponymous protagonist, George F. Babbitt of the metropolis of Zenith, is a man for whom the same blue necktie, starched white shirt and gray suit are part of the daily normal order of things. His is the requisite American pursuit – real estate! – and he boasts the requisite wife-and-two-kids family. He reserves the exhortation “Zowie!” for anything even the least remarkable. Looming over this flaccid inertia, however, is the impulse in George to become upwardly mobile. After all, Babbitt ruefully believes that his very nice, unperturbed life has amounted to nothing.
Foreshadowing break: As Lewis wrote in the novel of the restless George F., “His march to greatness was not without disastrous stumbling.”
A shared notion long in the making, “Babbitt” is now a play, written by Joe DiPietro, starring a subtly convincing Matthew Broderick and directed at a leisurely pace by La Jolla Playhouse’s Christopher Ashley. It’s an adaptation with a more likable and sympathetic George than Sinclair Lewis’ protagonist, more humor than in the novel and, strikingly, a telling that’s more urgent today than it was 101 years ago.
The more things change, the more they … well, you know how that goes.
In translating the novel to the stage, a certain amount of exposition was expected. It’s delivered on a spectacular multi-story library set by Walt Spangler by members of the ensemble cast who speak for and about Babbitt from the outset of the production. This is not my favorite theatrical device by any means -- when actors have to clue in the audience -- but it does save time, and remember: the source-material novel is more than 400 pages’ long.
We first meet Babbitt emerging from the covers of his bed, looking more rumpled than the bed itself – world-weary, beaten down by routine, mechanical in getting dressed in his familiar real estate office suit and hat. Broderick is at 61 portraying a character who’s supposed to be in his late 40s, but he’s got just enough Ferris Bueller boyishness still in his face to bring this off.
Mrs. Babbitt, aka Myra (Ann Harada) cooks, cleans and takes care of George and the kids: precocious daughter Tinka (Anna Chlumsky) who is the apple of her father’s eye and, it is emphasized, source of the only joy he has in his day-to-day; and older son Ted (Jalen Davidson), petulant and rebellious, the latter a trait old George cannot conceive of.
Things are just as perfunctory at the office. The only difference is that bland as Babbitt may be, he’s not above pulling a few fast ones on prospective renters, like not disclosing water damage. Zowie!
When Babbitt meets one of those prospectives, however, the attractive young widow Tanis Judique (Genevieve Angelson), he changes his tune for her. She brings to mind the beautiful fairy he’s been dreaming about in that rumpled bed. Tanis will play a much more significant role in George’s fate before long. (Aside: Can some Sinclair Lewis scholar out there kindly explain to me where the hell the author came up with a name like Tanis Judique?)
The tipping point in the temporary transformation of humdrum, unfulfilled George F. Babbitt coincides with the candidacy and rising popularity of a socialist former classmate who’s running for mayor. To tamp down the populist enthusiasm for this Seneca Doane (played by Chlumsky in the least believable of her multiple portrayals), Babbitt is recruited by the very upper-crust figure he and Myra have been trying to cultivate – the blustering Charles McKelvey (Matt McGrath), another former classmate.
Before long Babbitt is out of the shadows and into the spotlight, speechifying with what today would be considered Trumpian right-wing talking points about the threat of unions, the danger of free-thinking (and reading) in the schools, and the loyalty that any upstanding worker should rightly feel for his generous employer. He’s a sensation, with crowds chanting his name in unison.
In a twist that didn’t make much sense to me in the novel and doesn’t here either, Babbitt switches allegiances. His best friend Paul (Victor Flores) has shot his wife, and George figures he can persuade the influential Seneca Doane to intervene on Paul’s behalf. That entails parroting Doane’s liberal stands in speeches to the same folks he’d won over when stumping for McKelvey. Sure enough … Babbitt’s a sensation again. He’s no great speaker, but he’s the admired Everyman – regardless of philosophy.
But changing political positions is just the beginning. When Myra walks out on him, a (sort of) rebellious George turns to Tanis Judique, showing up after midnight at her flat for “dancing lessons.” Yeah. Right. Tanis sees through this in a hot minute.
Here’s where “Babbitt” inevitably gets a bit goofy, with the “loosened up” George hanging out with Tanis’ young free-thinking bohemians while never shedding his gray suit and tie.
It should be noted that through much of this rigamarole, “Babbitt” is played for laughs. Whether it’s a drunken poet at a dinner party gone wrong at George and Myra’s or a guru type who waves independence in Myra’s face when she goes out looking for it, the tenor of the play is satirical but rather silly. “Babbitt” has more humor than heart.
There is of course, the underlying tragedy of George F. Babbitt’s life: He is indeed a man who wants to amount to something and ultimately he does whatever he feels he must do to matter, if not to other people then to himself. His allegiances may waver back and forth, though he always puts his family first and for that, he’ll matter to audiences at this production.
Broderick’s Babbitt seems like a misguided guy who just needs the right hug to set him straight. Even when spouting McKelvey’s terrible screed or dully trying to justify Paul’s shooting his wife, he never comes off as mean-spirited. He never raises his voice either.
This Playhouse world premiere enjoys a versatile and very game ensemble that enriches “Babbitt’s” supporting characters. Flores stands out as both Paul and McKelvey cohort Dr. Littlefield, completely opposite types. Chlumsky’s snide and superior Mrs. McKelvey at the Babbitts’ bad dinner party is a keeper, and her reaction to the dipsomaniacal poet there (Julie Halston) priceless.
This is a truly collaborative undertaking from DiPietro, Ashley and Broderick, and “Babbitt” is appealing entertainment with thoughtful overtones. It’s less a tale of hero politics and more a portrait of a man torn between wanting to please everybody and wanting to please no one but himself. Somewhere in there resides the American Dream.
“Babbitt” runs through Dec. 10 at La Jolla Playhouse’s Mandell Weiss Theatre.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.