Coney Island Christmas
Veteran playwright Donald Margulies ("Dinner With Friends," "Collected Stories"), who has won a Pulitzer Prize and multiple other awards and nominations during his career, has created "Coney Island Christmas," a new play that at first seems like an atypically light offering for him. Yet the piece becomes richer and more profound as it progresses.
Originally suggesting it will be a nostalgic memory play in a Neil Simon vein, this world-premiere offering ultimately turns into a life-affirming glimpse at urgent human issues that nowadays seem more pertinent than ever. The tale of a Jewish matron sharing stories about her Brooklyn upbringing with her young great-granddaughter evolves into a deeply moving portrait of the importance of tolerance among cultures.
Telling this affecting story within the framework of a delicious yuletide show filled with humor and heart makes for an irresistible combination.
Basing this work on "The Loudest Voice," a short story by Grace Paley, the playwright sets his story in modern day L.A., where warm and kindly Shirley Abramowitz (a terrific Angela Paton) tries to cheer up her lonely great-granddaughter Clara (Grace Kaufman) during the year-end holidays. Angela describes her years living near Coney Island in the mid-1930s as an only child (charmingly played by Isabella Acres) to an immigrant couple, the local grocer, Mr. Abramowitz (Arye Gross) and his wife Mrs. Abramowitz (Annabelle Gurwitch).
Her memories soon come to life. In a manner that only happens in fanciful fictional tales, Shirley and Clara stand or sit on the sidelines and view the scenes from the past, commenting on them as if they are occurring as the play is unfolding.
Much of the action revolves around the school Thanksgiving and Christmas plays. For the upcoming Christmas pageant, young Shirley is cast against gender and opposite her religious faith in the role of Jesus, to her utter delight.
Unfortunately, her religiously devout parents are opposed to their daughter playing this role in a Christian celebration, and forbid her to participate, though the father ultimately relents, behind his wife's back. Mrs. Abramowitz believes it is the fault of the teachers (John Sloan and Lily Holleman) that the Jewish faith is being disrespected and forgotten.
The loveliness of this play, under the sensitive and astute direction of Bart DeLorenzo, is the way it captures the innocence and unbridled joy of youth juxtaposed to the concerns that come to us when we reach maturity. We see that both the young and the old can learn a great deal from each other, that things that on the surface seem bad might actually be good, and that the true essence of spirituality goes beyond individual cultures and specific beliefs.
The two school pageants depicted in the play are staged with a great sense of fun, as they young wannabe thespians mug mercilessly, compete for attention, and put everything they can muster into wooden line readings as they project a sense of innocence and delight in participating in their communal endeavor.
Director Bart DeLorenzo stages the hilarious rehearsal and performance scenes with an astonishing sense of authenticity. It's not easy for actors to play roles younger than themselves, or to portray "bad" actors when they have been trained to be good.
The effect is enhanced with the deliberately cheesy yet charming painted cardboard set pieces and props for the school scenes (designed by Takeshi Kata), and the simultaneously hilarious and dazzling costumes by Ann Closs-Farley. Atmospheric lighting by Lap Chi Chu and John Ballinger's original music and sound add to the triumphant design effort.
Gross and Gurwitch likewise give warm and convincing portrayals of the strong-valued Old World immigrants. Sloan and Holleman lend fine support.
DeLorenzo deserves credit for the committed and seamless work that he elicits from the entire ensemble, and the evening's graceful blend of lighthearted fun and timeless truths. And Margulies has given us a gift that promises to continue enchanting audiences for years to come as a new holiday-season classic.
"Coney Island Christmas" runs through Dec. 30 at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A. For info or tickets, call 310-208-5454 or visit geffenplayhouse.com