Babbitt at La Jolla
Matthew Broderick in a Star Turn
By: Sharon Eubanks - Nov 18, 2023
The La Jolla Playhouse adaptation of Sinclair Lewis's classic novel Babbitt tells the story of George F. Babbitt. The world-premiere play by Joe DiPietro stars Matthew Broderick.
Set in a sleek modern library, the ensemble cast, scattered around the library reading the novel, tells Babbitt’s story. Set in 1922, George F. Babbitt is a successful real estate man at the top of his game, firmly ensconced in the middle-class community of Zenith, a fictitious mid-Western city. A solid Republican, George is reliably anti-union and anti-immigrant. America is great and better than anything in Europe, despite George never having been there. George has the best America has to offer, a devoted wife Myra, who desperately wants to be part of society, a daughter Tinka, and a son Ted, who doesn’t want to go to college. Yet, George feels his life has amounted to nothing.
George and his best friend Paul, played by Francis Jue, discuss their lives. Paul is a tar roofer in a precarious relationship with his wife Zilla. However, this being 1920s America, Paul is considered part of the middle-class community. To shake up their lives, the pals go camping and Babbitt volunteers to give a speech at the local real estate meeting. Blessed with a gift of gab, Babbitt is noticed by the town’s prominent Republican Charles McKelvey. He and his group of upper-crust peers want to bust the unions, who are supporting Socialist candidate Seneca Doane for mayor. Passing himself off as one of them, George makes speeches to union workers. The rich and powerful bosses really care about their workers he says. Don’t interrupt the natural order of things, let the bosses make the decisions. The speeches effectively derail Doane’s campaign.
Under pressure from his socially conscious wife, George invites Charles and his wife to dinner. The dinner is a disaster. Paul and his wife needle each other at every opportunity, the town poet is drunk and McKelvey’s wife Lucille doesn’t even have to fake her ‘let’s get out of here now’ headache. Myra realizes she will never be accepted into the upper classes and starts looking for enlightenment elsewhere. She leaves George and goes to stay with her sister for a while.
As George bumbles along, Paul shoots his wife and George goes into major mid-life crisis mode. He begins an affair with Tanis, starts hanging out with non-conformist bohemian friends who she calls the Bunch. To try to save Paul from prison, George meets Doane and starts sympathizing with the union types. Aghast, the middle-class conformity immune response goes into action. McKelvey asks George to sign a pledge to a group that is essentially a kindlr, gentler version of a middle-class protection racket. George refuses to sign, business dries up, people ignore him. Even Tanis leaves him.
Myra returns, George confesses his affairs, Myra feels ill and has to have emergency surgery. George thinks hard and signs the loyalty pledge. He finds out Ted is married. George realizes that he has done all he can with his life. He hands the keys of his car to Ted and tells him to go his own way.
George’s story as presented by the La Jolla Playhouse is as relevant today as it was 100 years ago. Here in 2023, Americans are anti-union, anti-immigrant, and fearful of the ‘other’. People who consider themselves upstanding community leaders insist on telling others what and how to think. The pressure to conform is as strong as ever. Yet there may be enough people out there who will hand the keys over to the next generation and let them make their own way forward.
Playing through December 10th. It is sold out.