James DeVita and C. Michael Wright Join Forces for Another World Premiere
By Stephanie Harte
Photo Credit: Left to right: James Devita and Tom Klubertanz in Milwaukee Chamber Theatre's production of "Brooklyn Boy" in 2009. Klubertanz stars as Terry McShane in the world premiere of Devita's "Christmas in Babylon."
Back in 1992, James DeVita slipped a script across a Milwaukee Rep dressing room counter to fellow actor C. Michael Wright. The script was for Waiting for Vern, a one-man show he had been quietly working on.
Although DeVita admits he didn’t know Wright well at the time, he greatly admired his work as an actor and director, and therefore wanted him to be the first person that read his play.
“The first thing I ever wanted to be was a writer, but I didn't try it till I was 30 years old," DeVita says. "(Wright) was wonderfully ruthless. There were Xs and red marks everywhere. He spent about a week with it, which was actually really encouraging because I knew he saw some merit in it."
After DeVita and Wright reworked the script, Waiting for Vern marked the inaugural production of the theatre company they started together, Collision Theatre Ensemble, in 1993. Although the company only lasted a few years, DeVita and Wright continued to collaborate on numerous projects, including another one-man play DeVita wrote called Dickens in America, which Wright directed.
James DeVita. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
This holiday season, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre presents the world premiere of DeVita’s Christmas in Babylon, a comedy about a blue-collar, lower-middle-class family living in North Babylon, Long Island. Wright has been MCT’s producing artistic director since 2005, and will once again direct DeVita’s piece.
In Christmas in Babylon, Terry McShane (Tom Klubertanz) is randomly contacted by his ex-fiancée, Kathleen O’Rourke (Laura Gray), who he hasn’t seen in 25 years. Kathleen is a former Babylonian with an extremely successful self-help empire and a huge secret for Terry.
MCT workshopped Christmas in Babylon in March 2017 as part of the Montgomery Davis Play Development Series, named after MCT’s former artistic director and co-founder.
“Just like Miracle on South Division Street (last year’s holiday show at MCT) I love how it is about family,” Wright says. “What we regard as important in terms of who our family is and opening up our doors to a bigger family. I feel like because of my life in the theater, that’s always been a strong part of who I am. I consider Jimmy DeVita my brother. He is definitely part of my family because we have been through so much.”
Originally, DeVita simply called the piece Babylon. Wright suggested he rework portions of the play in order to set it around the holidays. This helped to clarify the length of time between the beginning and end of the play, as well as heighten the stakes with the stress of that beloved jolly time.
C. Michael Wright. Photo courtesy of Milwaukee Chamber Theatre.
Like the characters in the play, DeVita also grew up in North Babylon. DeVita’s own Irish family inspired the characters’ personalities.
“They are the funniest people I have ever met,” DeVita says. “They are witty and dry and I don’t care what’s going on, how bad the situation is, they will find something to make you laugh. The world is on fire and if we could just get a little respite to laugh, I think that would be wonderful.”
Christmas in Babylon, presented by Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, runs Nov. 21 – Dec. 23 at the Broadway Theatre Center’s Studio Theatre, 158 N. Broadway. For tickets visit milwaukeechambertheatre.com or call the box office at (414) 291-7800.