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RADIO REVIEW : Lend an Ear to 'Babbitt'

November 26, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN | Times Theater Critic

Who would have thought that one of the highlights of the theater year would be a radio show? But there it is, on KCRW (89.9 FM) all day today: the L.A. Classic Theatre Works' production of "Babbitt."

We had a stage version of Sinclair Lewis' novel at the Mark Taper Forum earlier this season. But the radio production is the whole book, 14 1/2 hours of it, read by an all-star cast headed by the wonderful Ed Asner as George F. ("Homes for Folks") Babbitt.

If the reader doesn't have 14 1/2 hours to give to a radio program on a Thanksgiving Day, which is possible, KCRW will also be offering "Babbitt" in 29 separate chapters starting next week. (See cast box.) But you can certainly give the show a few minutes this morning, starting right now. It has been on since 8.

The cast box also reveals the quality of actor involved with this project. Not just big names like Julie Harris, Richard Dreyfuss and Stacy Keach. (It's fun to try to spot their voices as they slip in and out.) It's almost more impressive to find Franklyn Seales in the cast, an excellent actor who has paid his dues twice over in smaller theater. A dream L.A. repertory company would have a place for Franklyn Seales; and here's an image of just such a company.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday December 1, 1987 Home Edition Calendar Part 6 Page 4 Column 1 Entertainment Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction
The photos of KCRW's production of "Babbitt," reviewed by Dan Sullivan in Thursday's Calendar, were taken by Nan Sheri Lieberman.

This is world-class radio theater with, for once, an American label. Not to be protectionist about it, but don't you get sick of British voices on NPR and PBS, particularly when they're doing our material? (Laurence Olivier's ridiculous Big Daddy, for example.) This "Babbitt" is done in good old American, by actors who grew up in burgs like Zenith, Minn., and know exactly where the joke is.

(The BBC apparently agrees. It has bought the show for airing in England.)

This radio version also restores one's faith in the comic vigor of Sinclair Lewis' novel. The Taper's "Babbitt: A Marriage" seemed a decent enough dramatization, but its comic spark was low. One wondered if George and his booster pals hadn't, after all, been outsatirized by the Reagan Administration.

No way. The radio "Babbitt" may prompt the listener to notice that we Americans are still selling each other the same kind of banana oil that we were in 1922. George's after-dinner speeches to the Chamber of Commerce and the Elks are much the same as his grandson would give today--except the part about not getting mixed up with those gol-dang furren governments.

But no real-life personage could be funnier than Asner fuming about the dangers of labor unions, with their un-American habit of forcing workers to join them. Clearly the only remedy would be an employers' association, which everybody should be made to join--because in union there is strength. Way to go, George!

Yet we like Asner's George, just as Sinclair Lewis did. He confessed to being half a Babbitt himself, just as entranced with our gadgets and skyscrapers, our brute innocence, our gorgeous sense of possibility. "Babbitt" isn't just a satire. It's also a romance, and Gordon Hunt's cast reads it lovingly, as if remembering some wonderful, crazy uncle.

One thing that was missed in the Taper's "Babbitt" was the author's voice. We don't miss a word of Lewis' text here (Rene Auberjonois arranged it for radio) but it never descends to a drone--the men and women in the cast pass the narrative around, like the cast of "Nicholas Nickleby." And most of them know enough to keep the irony light, letting Lewis' words do the work.

The cast is too big to appraise individually, but it would be criminal not to mention Nan Martin as George's missus. On the face of it, this is a dull woman. Underneath, she is, too. But there's something courageous about the way she plows on through the minutiae of her life, and George would be lost without her--more lost than he already is. (Asner doesn't neglect that aspect of his personality either.)

The women in the Taper's "Babbitt" somehow came out as the bad guys. That wasn't Lewis' point and isn't the feeling here. Martin makes you see Myra as, for good and bad, the co-bearer of George's fate. In this "Babbitt" everybody's in it together, and everybody's interesting. It's a shame that actors this skillful can only get together on the radio in Los Angeles--but perhaps it's also a beginning. P.S.: How about putting this "Babbitt" on cassette?

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