BWW Review: CHRISTMAS IN BABYLON Unpacks Family Dynamics With Comedy At The Milwaukee Chamber Theatre
Season's greetings from Babylon, Long Island, where last year's Christmas lights are wadded up tight, there are one too many camels crowding the nativity, and plain cheese is the festive pizza topping of choice.
Playwright James DeVita, Director Michael Wright, and the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (MCT) invite theatergoers to spend the holidays with the McShanes, a blue collar family with a father whose uniform is flannel and sarcasm, a live-at-home daughter that's "finding herself" by way of shifts at the local diner, and a mother who, though she seems a little checked out, rules the roost when push comes to shove.
In a lot of ways, it's not hard to identify with the McShanes, Long Islanders though they may be. Writer James DeVita is a Long Island native himself, and although he says he worried that early versions of Christmas in Babylon were filled with too much "New York humor," the laughs in the MCT's intimate Studio Theater on opening night surely laid any such fears to rest. To be sure, this hilarious, heartwarming, conflict-ridden family comedy holds up in the midwest.
Bringing the McShanes to life are three MCT alums: Tom Klubertanz as husband Terry, Mary MacDonald Kerr as wife Denise, and Sara Zientek as daughter Abby. Babylon opens to Terry's prolonged nervous rambling as he anxiously tries on three different shirts before landing on a comfortable plaid. Denise spends the entirety of Terry's initial monologue seated at the kitchen table, puttering around on the family laptop and tuning out her husband's tangent. What has Terry so flustered? His ex-fiancé of 25 years, Kathleen, is back in town and wants to catch up.
Kathleen O'Rourke, now a new age-y self-help guru, is played by another MCT alum, Laura Gray. Complicating the family dynamics is Kathleen's daughter, Kelly, played by Eva Nimmer, who is making her MCT debut. While the McShanes can be abrasive and crass, the O'Rourkes swoop in as couple of calm, accomplished, well-spoken women; though, not surprisingly, even these two have their own baggage - and lots of it.
Luckily for audiences, all that baggage is unpacked with humor aplenty. As the central figure, Klubertanz embodies the easily worked-up Terry; his volume escalates and brow glistens as he fends off both comedic and concerning asthma attacks with great believability. It's certainly a particular brand of humor - one rooted in this character's wittily-written defensiveness and exasperation - and it's a brand Klubertanz delivers with ease.
Perhaps even more hilarious is Zientek's Abby, who had the audience in hysterics upon her first breathless rant about a seemingly-atrocious man in line at the grocery store who wrongly accused her of coughing and rudely asked for "some space." This is a girl prone to anxiety played for laughs, foul-mouthed back-talking, and hilarious physical comedy as she starts to overheat in an itchy wool holiday sweater. Zientek has the audience chortling in anticipation of her antics the moment she bursts upon the scene.
Then there's Denise, the more even-keeled McShane. As many mothers do, she's the one working diligently behind the scenes to keep the family afloat and her two constantly-lit fuses from exploding. MacDonald Kerr brings an honesty to the role of Denise; she can be just as funny, without teetering into outlandish outbursts like Terry and Abby. As the family peacemaker and glue, MacDonald Kerr plays very naturally off Klubertanz, their snarky-yet-loving dialogue seamless and real. It's a testament to DeVita's writing as much as the actors' embodiment.
Written to be more than a little "out there" is ex-fiancé Kathleen. She's on a speaking tour touting the benefits of letting go of the past, forgiving yourself, embracing gifts of the universe, and releasing negativity in the interest of self actualization. Sounds like a bunch of mumbo jumbo to the down-to-earth McShanes, but Gray plays Kathleen with spot-on hilarity, particularly in scenes where she speaks to the audience as if they were seated at one of her self-help conferences. From hokey affirmations to hippie-dippy drumming to release our demons, Gray nails the drink-the-kool-aid vibe.
Such outrageous laughs and oddness are made better by a foil, and in Christmas in Babylon, that foil is the very normal, doctor-in-training, largely level-headed Kelly. Though Nimmer doesn't snag a huge amount of laughs, she brings just what she should to the part: she creates a Kelly that's likable, endearing, and one whose happiness audiences are pleased root for. Her scenes with Klubertanz bring an unwavering tenderness in the midst of all the hollering, and such touching moments are all but required of any story that wraps up on Christmas Eve.
It's truly the Christmas factor that helps drives the story, too. The stakes are always higher and the timeline is always tighter at holiday time, motivating characters to act in ways they maybe otherwise wouldn't. What results in Babylon are lessons in forgiving others, forgiving yourself, and moving forward - lessons that, for some reason, we are all more willing to embrace at this most wonderful time of the year.