‘Waters of Babylon’

has great chemistry,

but formula’s off

By John Fleming, Times performing arts critic
In print: Thursday, September 25, 2008

The story: Boy meets girl, except they’ve got more baggage than usual in By the Waters of Babylon, the two-person play by Robert Schenkkan that opens American Stage’s 30th anniversary season. It’s about the unlikely relationship between Catherine (Julie Rowe), the widow of an abusive college professor, and her gardener, Arturo (Chaz Mena), who turns out to be a novelist, exiled from Fidel Castro’s Cuba because he wouldn’t knuckle under to censorship.

Why we care: Schenkkan won the Pulitzer Prize for drama in 1992 for The Kentucky Cycle, an epic that calls for 20 actors and is rarely produced because of the expense of hiring them all. Babylon, set in Austin, Texas, and directed by Drew Fracher, is a chance to experience this important playwright’s work on an intimate scale. Why we like it: Strong chemistry between Rowe and Mena energizes the opposites-attract scenario. She’s got loads of screwball charm — “You know why Baptists don’t have sex?” she asks. “It’s too much like dancing!” — and he’s got soulful speeches on the glories of Cuban music and mixes a killer mojito.

Why we don’t: It’s a bit too convenient that Arturo is such a cultivated fellow, a day laborer who just happens to be fluent in French and quotes Ernest Hemingway. And Catherine’s transformation from wise-cracking ditz into psychotic whack job right out of Fatal Attraction strains credulity.

The sexy part: Woman winds up in bed with her gardener (or pool cleaner or cable guy): Babylon could be seen as a high-class homage to a million porn fantasies. The bedroom scene between Catherine and Arturo is pretty steamy. There was an audible gasp from the Sunday matinee audience when Mena dropped the purple sheet draped around him to flash some bare butt. Reminds us of: Terrence McNally’s Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune, another play about the developing relationship of two ordinary people, a short-order cook and a waitress.

Should you go? Sure, especially if you’re interested in some gardening tips.

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