In The Babylon Line, Michael Oberholtzer primarily plays Marc Adams, a writing-class student who is laboring away on a “magnum opus.” Between shows backstage the other day, as the actor drank barley tea and touted the benefits of oregano oil (“it’s the panacea for everything”), I asked him exactly what kind of opus Marc might be creating.
“I don’t have an exact answer for that,” Oberholtzer said. “During rehearsals, Terry Kinney” – the production’s director – “said Marc’s book might contain a chapter with souvenirs about colonial Virginia and the next chapter might be about Daffy Duck.” The book’s high contrast would mirror that of the author: “Marc is a juxtaposition of crazy imagination and stillness.”
Oberholtzer’s research for the role led him to Henry Darger, a reclusive American writer and artist who died in 1973. He became famous for his posthumously discovered 15,145-page, single-spaced fantasy manuscript called The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. Oberholtzer said that “Darger is nothing like Marc Adams, but he is an example of ‘outsider art,’ and Marc, I think, would identify with that.” Darger “reminds us that if the imagination is not limited -- it can go as far as you want.”
Darger lived in Chicago, the city where Oberholtzer attended college. Specifically, at Columbia College, where his major was interdisciplinary studies, focusing on dramatic performance and film study. After graduation, the actor came to New York and pursued further investigation: Meisner technique, Alexander technique, and a stint at The New Actors Workshop, founded by Paul Sills, George Morrison, and Mike Nichols.
Oberholtzer brought much of that training to bear in Hand to God, the Robert Askins comedy in which Oberholtzer made a notable Broadway debut two years ago. He played Timothy, a young man who was parked at a church basement while his mother went to 12-step meetings. Timothy seems low-key at first, but as the story progresses he and the ensemble explode with energy. The experience, Oberholtzer said, “was like getting into a race car every night.”
The play’s patrons could be vociferous. What was Oberholtzer’s favorite audience response? “There were so many,” he replied, “but one sticks out in my mind. Right before the end of the first act, my character tells another character, ‘I [bleeped] your mother.’ That line usually got a huge reaction. But one night I said the line and there was dead silence. Until this middle-aged woman, in the balcony, cried out, ‘Oh, no!’” He continued: “We almost died. It was hard not to break character.”
Oberholtzer grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana, but he said he had little trouble finding points of reference with Levittown, Long Island, where The Babylon Line takes place. Mentioning one of the middle-aged mothers in the writing class, he remarked, “I didn’t know any Frieda Cohens, but I knew women who were strong, as well as couples in the neighborhood who weren’t necessarily what they seemed.” He added: “Just because we live in a homogenous atmosphere doesn’t mean we’re all the same.”
According to Oberholtzer, Richard Greenberg said he wrote Babylon in part because “he’d never come across anything that depicted suburban life in a way that was true to how he experienced it.” And Greenberg, added Oberholtzer, writes about Babylon in a manner that feels not only true but beautiful. He cited a scene in which the seemingly fragile character Joan describes a woman as: “thin as a sentence, shadowy as a prayer.” “That’s poetic,” Oberholtzer said.
Brendan Lemon is the editor of lemonwade.com