Theater

‘Babylon’ Is Funny As Hell

Though second act flags a bit, Chamber Theatre’s new Christmas play is a theatrical triumph.

By - Nov 26th, 2018 03:13 pm
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L-R: Mary MacDonald Kerr as Denise McShane, Eva Nimmer as Kelly O’Rourke, Sara Zientek as Abby McShane, Tom Klubertanz as Terry McShane. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

L-R: Mary MacDonald Kerr as Denise McShane, Eva Nimmer as Kelly O’Rourke, Sara Zientek as Abby McShane, Tom Klubertanz as Terry McShane. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

One of our finest actors, James DeVita, proves his ear for dialogue extends to his playwriting in the current Milwaukee Chamber Theatre offering through Dec. 23 entitled Christmas in Babylon.

It is directed with an equally proficient ear for timing by his good friend, the company’s departing artistic director C. Michael Wright. And the two have assembled and scrubbed into detailed counterpoint four women and one harried man, who can slyly be called the father of this feast of collision between the McShanes and the O’Rourkes. (I will not further spoil the plot surprise.)

This is truly an actors’ play – and each has several moments to prove that accolade. Their characters unfold not just in head-on living room chats but amusing moments from a lecture hall. “All in the Family” has stumbled into “Ted Talks.”

In lesser hands, we might balk at the familiarity of the social types and conflicts. DeVita’s use of language floats above and beneath that fear. The twists and the actors’ gifts for digging inside a line leave patrons breathless from laughter in the first act.

Kitchen sink drama? Yes, but turned on its head into rich humor. A family from the lower middle class world of garages, pizzas and nail parlors – the old rough Brooklyn if your prefer – runs headlong into the New Age holier than thou-isms emanating from the sophisticated new Brooklyn of self-help gurus.

The playwright and the actors in their little tangles keep deepening the experience. The family roots under the conflict are similar, but that makes the disagreements even more amusing. We keep seeing one character inside a highly different other.

The befuddled but lovable father, Terry, is like a comedian Henny Youngman of old – don’t like a joke he gets tangled up in? Wait a minute he’s going to swing again! Actor Tom Klubertanz offers a master class with a Dead End Kids’ twisted mouth, exasperated delivery and sideways looks– ending with an asthmatic attack that makes the doctors in the house start toward the stage until they realize it is just acting.

His is a character-complete tour de force that a second act can only weaken. The first act so gripped us that we want the second act to knit the piece together.

Actress Laura Gray’s brilliance as a new wave mother gone tipsy (or newly self-aware) keeps us engaged but not convinced. As good as she is impaling the character, she can’t disguise that the second act is not as integrated as the first, and that the revelations are nowhere on par with the interplays of the first act. (The biggest applause of the second act is actually for the three anonymous set changers who skillfully slide a new environment into Steve Barnes’ set.)

If the second act could rise beyond being merely engaging, DeVita has a first-class “any season” hit – hardly just a Christmas offering. The Babylon of the title is a Long Island community enclave, North Babylon. The play is carefully set around Christmas, but that only pays off for one dialogue exchange involving a crèche.

In truth, the commercial appeal of creating a Christmas classic may be the secret title sauce here, though DeVita and Wright do try to incorporate the holiday into the action. What was needed instead was folding actress Gray’s best second act behavior into a rewrite to make the whole as satisfying as the first two-thirds.

If I sound worried that a Christmas-like title might keep some lovers of comedy away, yup, I am. Don’t dare miss Kluberantz’s first act and his ensemble partners, who are playing on a high plane indeed.

Eva Nimmer, as the accidental cause of all the confusion, is stunningly whole and unflappable in a first act that requires perfect control and response, something quite difficult for an actress but executed well here. Sara Zientek plays the counter-weight, a foul-mouthed eternal adolescent always on the verge of hysteria. Mary MacDonald Kerr, with some delicious side-mouth sarcasm of her own, nails the common-sense deadpan of her character.

Christmas in Babylon Gallery

Dominique Paul Noth served for decades as film and drama critic, later senior editor for features at the Milwaukee Journal. You can find his blog here and here.

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