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If you want relief from your own family’s BS this holiday season, Christmas in Babylon may offer two hours of freedom and catharsis.

Christmas in Babylon isn’t the happy, “everything-is-nice” Christmas play I’d expected. It’s not topped with a bow, the gifts don’t come wrapped and no magical beings come ho-ho-ho-ing down the chimney.

This family drama-comedy made its world premiere last week at Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. Written by Wisconsin-transplant James DeVita — a stalwart of the American Players Theatre in Spring Green — the two-act play is based in Babylon, a town on DeVita’s home of Long Island.

Klubertanz

It’s funny (albeit rude to laugh) at Wisconsinites trying their darnedest to do a Long Island accent, namely leading man Tom Klubertanz as Terry McShane.

But what Klubertanz lacks in New Yorker enunciation he makes up for in truly fitting the role of a chip-off-the-old-block gas station employee forced to face a crisis in his midlife.

He wears his childhood abuse like a badge of honor amidst the changing face of parenthood in the 21st century. And yet, he shows gentle (but overwhelmed) affection for his anxiety-riddled adult daughter, played by UWM grad Sara Zientek.

McShane family meeting. Mary MacDonald Kerr, left, Tom Klubertanz, middle, Sara Zientek, right.

The character of Terry McShane could be likened to Seinfeld’s George Costanza, just not as morally reprehensible. He’s constantly upset with the state of things (whatever they may be), isn’t funny when he tries to be, and ends up being pretty hilarious when he tries to be serious. Most importantly, McShane doesn’t really know how to address his problems so he just lets him be until they slap him in the face.

“These characters still make me laugh out loud as they struggle with the push and pull of those family ties that are sometimes too tight, often too loose, but always present,” Director C. Michael Wright, a longtime friend of DeVita’s, wrote in his director’s notes. “And they move me enormously when they start to dig down deep to embrace forgiveness and acceptance.”.

There’s another incidental similarity between Christmas in Babylon and NBC’s landmark sitcom. It’s full of awkward conversations and idiosyncratic interjections.

See the play

7:30 p.m. Wednesdays

7:30 p.m. Thursdays

7:30 p.m. Fridays

4 p.m. & 8 p.m. Saturdays

2 p.m. Saturdays

Talkback Q&As at 1 p.m. on select Wednesdays

Buy Tickets: $15-$40

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It’s clear much of DeVita’s work during the years-long process of writing Babylon went into crafting scenes where awkwardness and silence felt believable. The unimportant moments are intermixed with (and sometimes confused for) the moments that don’t — that’s where Christmas in Babylon is most successful.

“I love plays where characters actually change,” DeVita said in an interview with Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, “because I think it so rarely happens in life. It’d be a great world if we could all figure out how to do that. Myself included.”

Like all good fiction, Christmas in Babylon makes its audience look at the things we see every day but never notice — like how sometimes it’s best to talk it out in the car, or how absurdly difficult it is to make small talk in a coffee shop.

The aforementioned awkward coffee convo. Tom Klubertanz at left, Eva Nimmer as Kelly O’Rourke at right. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Laura Gray as Kathleen. Photo by Paul Ruffolo.

Theater Notes

– James DeVita added Christmas to the plot/title of Christmas in Babylon at the suggestion of Director C. Michael Wright. You can kind of tell that the holiday was an afterthought, since it didn’t really make much of an impact on the plot. That said, if my family is dealing with a crisis as the McShanes have to in this play, Santa Claus and my new shoes would become an afterthought as well.

– If you’re a fan of Joan Cusack, you’ll love how Laura Gray plays the spiritually enlightened inspirational speaker Kathleen. Very funny, very self-aware, very good.

– Oh hey, there’s cursing in this script. Not, like, as much as a Quentin Tarantino film, but enough that I was delightfully surprised. Why? Because people actually swear, so the McShane family should curse too dagummit.

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