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Babel

At Lowell House through Saturday (two performances Saturday)

By Michael W. Schwartz

Messrs. Morey and Paul have taken considerable liberties with Moses' brief account of the rise and fall of the tower of Babel. In the nine verses of the original (Gen,: xi, 1-9), the tower is a monument to hutzpa; in their musical play, Morey and Paul suggest that, in fact, it symbolized fraud and sham. And they and their small cast argue so wittily and so tunefully that I am inclined to take their word for it.

Mr. Morey's script bulges with literary goodies--deft word-play and shamelessly brazen puns--and merciless attacks on word-hawkers and discounters of good English. The advertising business, of course, gets hit hardest--I confess I am easily bored by anti-adman jokes--but Morey is at his best ridiculing Socratic sophistry, New Critics, and weary old critics. Unfortunately, Mr. Morey has made his towns folk tiresomely stock and sappy (the female romantic lead is called "the Romantic Lead"), perhaps for good reason, but with--as some weary old cur might say in the Trib--exceedingly mixed results. The players therefore have burdensome problems of pace and timing thrust on their somewhat frail shoulders, which either Mr. Morey or his director (was there a director?) ought to have lightened. Lovely Susan Schwartz as the Romantic Lead struggles womanfully but neither she nor Mr. Morey (who plays her opposite number--that is, Her Opposite Number) makes out very well.

But since the play's points are made in delightfully lengthy digressions, these lapses in the script only interfere a little with the fun; they don't spoil it. Besides, most of the cast knows better than to take a musical's plot seriously, and they share the audience's amusement in discovering how easily gulled the Babelites are by slick talk. The gab is dispensed by a down-and-out swami (played by Mr. Morey's collaborator, Robert Paul), who wanders into Babel, promptly sells the Babelites the world, and, to dispose of a bag of cement, persuades them to build a tower commemorating their purchase. Mr. Paul's loquacity dazzles and overwhelms them; the only person he doesn't fool is his Woman (Tammy Miller), briefly Babel's Grabel, who knows (and shows) that only flesh is real--not words.

Mr. Paul's acting is almost as good as his music, before which I stand in silent awe. His melodies are simple, but clever and subtle. In their charm and sophistication, they reminded me of the Kurt Weill of The Threepenny Opera. The pit band is generally equal to the difficulties of the music, but the drummer's conventional beats are very inappropriate. You will be missing the early work of a brilliant musical talent if you miss Babel.

The music and Mr. Morey's tightly- packed lyrical lines prove almost too much for several members of the cast. Peter Fine (who plays the town's first citizen, a retired army officer named General Will) is insufficiently daring, and Edna Epstein, as a batty sooth-sayer, seems to have trouble hearing the orchestra, and lacking real stage presence, she gets flustered.

But one performance towers over all the others: Sidney Goldfarb, who plays Smith, the town's brick-maker, has and gives a better time than anybody. Mr. Goldfarb's self-assurance and gusto are limitless. He really can't sing, but whatever he does with a song, I like it; he really can't dance, but I value his twist beyond measure.

Running Goldfarb a close second is George Engel, whose various roles include a blind man and a nice old lady from Tulsa. Through it all, he keeps his lunatic chuckle unimpaired, like the sacred thing it is.

Morey and Paul's spoof of dupes and quackery is as broad as Goldfarb's beam, and as incisive a tour de force as you could wish. But as the Swami's Woman would say, don't take anybody's word for it. See for yourself.

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