Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Philadelphia

Theatre Exile
Review by Rebecca Rendell | Season Schedule

Also see Rebecca's review of Fool for Love

Anita Holland, Amanda Schoonover,
Frank Nardi, Jr., and Bi Jean Ngo

Photo courtesy of Theatre Exile
Bitingly clever, seriously funny, and intriguing from start to finish, Jacqueline Goldfinger's dark comedy Babel is exactly the sort of well-executed science fiction theater that can change your perspective forever. Goldfinger is a Philadelphia native and she has found an ideal platform for her world premiere with director Deborah Block in the city's Theatre Exile. The four-person ensemble is remarkable, taking on complex roles with compelling authenticity. Babel may be set in the future, but the questions it asks about friendship, love, control and sacrifice are alarmingly relevant right now.

The biggest question Goldfinger's work asks is: If we choose not to make the personal sacrifices necessary to slow the pace of climate change now, what kind of sacrifices will our children's children be forced to make instead? Babel takes place one or two hundred years in the future, when Philadelphia has become a coastal city and the resources necessary for survival are scarce. To ensure the safety of the human race, America has implemented eugenics-based population control. Every fetus is genetically tested for intelligence, health and behavior. Those that pass will live in the comfort and safety of a society that is nearly free from disease and violence. Those that do not pass are aborted or doomed to spend their adult life in a place dubiously referred to as "the village."

The setup may be bizarre, but Goldfinger's characters lead lives nearly identical to our own. Finally pregnant after eight years of trying, Renee (Anita Holland) and Dani (Amanda Schoonover) are adorably nervous. Their frayed nerves and deep love are evident as they gently debate the importance of Renee's fairly hilarious prenatal exercises. Jamie (Frank Nardi Jr.) and Ann (Bi Jean Ngo) are their best friends who, as it turns out, are also going to be first-time parents. Political opinions about the eugenics program become much more personal when it is time for their own fetuses to get tested.

Holland is proud but vulnerable as Renee, channeling a mix of fear and joy that will be familiar to any expectant parent. Holland's evolution over the course of the play is beautiful and her delivery of the final line is epic. Sharp and in control, Schoonover radiates confidence. There is a lovely chemistry between them, but I felt less compatibility between the two couples. Bi Jean Ngo is on point as meek but neurotic Ann. I don't want to give anything away, so I'll just say that Frank Nardi Jr. takes some challenging material and makes it sing.

There is also room for improvement. A handful of sequences go on for too long, slowing the pace of the production. The monastic simplicity of the set does not mesh with the very comfortable lifestyle being portrayed. If people are still enjoying red wine and air travel, shouldn't there still be photographs and knickknacks? Finally, the climactic scene needs to be even more shocking and dramatic.

Even with these issues, Babel is a revelatory work and Theatre Exile's production is superb. Go see it for one unique evening of entertainment, but do not be surprised if Babel is on your mind for many nights to come.

Babel runs through March 8, 2020, at Theatre Exile, 1340 S. 13th Street, Philadelphia PA. For tickets and information, please visit theatreexile.orgor call 215-218-4022.

Bi Jean Ngo
Frank Nardi, Jr.
Anita Holland
Amanda Schoonover

Playwright: Jacqueline Goldfinger
Director: Deborah Block
Set Designer: Colin McIlvaine
Lighting Designer: Drew Billiau
Costume Designer: Ariel (Liudi) Wang
Sound Designer & Composer: Elizabeth Atkinson
Props Master: Missy Furth
Stage Manager: Samantha Dugan
Assistant Director: Alice Hakvaag