Tower of Babel

Four characters search for the perfect in an imperfect world in Jacqueline Goldfinger’s new play at Theatre Exile

By Sandy Smith

Children are the future, we are reminded over and over. But what does it mean to have a child, and what does having a child say about us and our own desires? In a world where one can design a “perfect” child, would we really want to do just that?

Playwright Jacqueline Goldfinger tackles these questions head-on in “Babel,” her new play currently receiving its world premiere at Theatre Exile in South Philadelphia.

“Babel” is set in an unspecified future where global warming has wiped New Jersey off the map and Philadelphia now sits on the ocean, a fact not revealed fully until the play’s end. In this future Philly, the depredations previous generations, including our own, have wreaked on the planet have made producing children vital to human society in a way it’s not now. And technological advances in DNA research have made it possible for couples to know exactly what kind of child they will produce in advance.

Into this world come two couples, one straight, one lesbian, both trying to produce one of those children. And as they do, they wrestle with issues of desire, motive, ambition and morals. As they move towards their respective deliveries – one unsuccessful – the two couples are both drawn together and split apart by their quests to mount summits and close circles. We learn that what seems supportive may actually be selfish, and that perfection ain’t everything it’s cracked up to be.

The four actors who play the couples – Frank Nardi as Jamie, Ri Jean Ngo as his wife Ann, Amanda Schoonover as Dani, and Anita Holland as Renee – do a great job of tapping into the emotional wells Goldfinger digs for them with her script. And as they carom from one emotional extreme to another, a fifth character arrives on the scene early on to serve as a confidant and pillar of wisdom: the stork, also played by Nardi.

Anita Holland, Amanda Schoonover, Frank Nardi, Jr. and Bi Jean Ngo. Photo by Paola Nogueras.

This stork has seen it all, and with an attitude reminiscent of Groucho Marx’s, he asks the women doing the heavy lifting in each couple to look inside themselves and ask three key questions: Do you really want this child? Do you really want this child? And do you really want this child?

Ultimately, both women and their partners answer “Yes” to at least one of these questions and “No” to at least one other. And as they figure those answers out, they also manage to enter each other’s lives and minds.

This intricate mental ballet takes place against set designer Colin McIlvaine’s extremely minimalist staging. The beige-fabric-and-blond-wood set serves as the blank canvas on which Goldfinger’s characters splash emotional color and director Deborah Block and lighting designer Drew Billau splash some actual color at the very end.

At once warm, funny, witty, touching and disturbing, “Babel” actually puts us in touch with what makes us human, reminds us that what’s perfect may not be what’s best, and suggests that some things might be best left a mystery.

“Babel” continues through March 8 at Theatre Exile, 13th and Reed streets. Tickets and more information can be obtained at or by calling 215-218-4022.