Babbitt at La Jolla Playhouse

The received wisdom is that the three creative principles behind this production (writer Joe DiPietro, director Christopher Ashley and actor Matthew Broderick) several years ago were chatting and discovered a mutual affinity for a century old novel by Sinclair Lewis.

Telling a tale of a rather nondescript businessman with a family in Anytown, USA (or rather the fictional Zenith) the eponymous lead character George F. Babbitt cycles through a discovery of his unsatisfying life. A dormant interest in speechifying lands him successive moments of glory, but with it comes the need to pivot as the winds of change buffet around him.

Broderick seems initially under deployed in the lead role. Having seen him command the stage in the 1980s with Neil Simon’s autobiographical Eugene Trilogy (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues and Broadway Bound) and with our kids years later in the Disney version of The Music Man Broderick here seems rather flat and stilted. But upon further reflection, the restrained performance befits the character’s malaise.

A few bright moments truly sparkle, such as when Broderick’s Babbitt experiments with some dance routines.

Immense credit goes to the too-often unlooked aspects of the production, including scenic designer Walt Spangler, original music by Mark Bennett with Wayne Barker and especially the incredibly innovative lighting by Cha See.

Although the rest of the excellent cast in multiple roles often act as narrators looking back to Babbitt’s era, all but Broderick perform multiple roles. Ashley keeps the pace steady, and the intricacies of the plot develop nicely in the second half of the show. 

Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.