Holidays are a time for families. And holiday shows are a delightful way for families to share time together. The world premiere play, Coney Island Christmas, at the Geffen Playhouse is an opportunity for parents, children and grandparents to enjoy an evening out together.
Pulitzer Prize winner Donald Margulies was commissioned to write the play by the Geffen’s founder, Gil Cates, who sadly passed away before seeing it produced. The two men had brainstormed together to find an intergenerational story that could be an annual holiday happening for the theatre. They found what they were looking for in a short story, The Loudest Voice, by Grace Paley, and developed the play based on it.
A bit of nostalgia and a lot of fun, Coney Island Christmas is a play from the heart that delicately weaves different religious beliefs into a holiday story about children’s dreams, cultural history, and family dynamics.
In the opening scene, the audience is introduced to oldster Shirley Abramowitz (Angela Paton) and her young granddaughter, Clara (Grace Kaufman), who is home from school with a sore throat. As grandma tells the youngster about her own childhood, we are transported from 2012 and its modern tech gadgets to 70 years earlier and a wonderful set, designed with a roller coaster to feel like Coney Island in the 1930’s. So put down your iPhone and take out your earbuds, because they haven’t been invented yet. Entertainment during this time period consisted of the radio, family events and school plays.
In Coney Island Christmas, it’s the school plays that provide much of the humor and a large part of the cast. We first see a Thanksgiving play performed by a group of pilgrims and Young Shirley (Isabella Acres) who excels as the turkey.
Her drama teacher (John Sloan) knows she is the best actor in the class – and decides that in the Christmas pageant, Shirley should play the most important role – Jesus!
This is where the family problems begin. Shirley is Jewish, and her parents who run a Brooklyn grocery store… are quite religious. Although her father (Arye Gross) wants to go along with her doing the role, religious mom (Annabelle Gurwitch) thinks it’s a “shonda” – and forbids Shirley – a Jewish girl – to play Jesus. Dad is too weak to confront mom; Shirley doesn’t want to disappoint her teacher or the other students; and mom is simply horrified at the loss of cultural pride and the assimilation of Jews in America. The drama and conflicts continue as young Shirley wrestles with her dilemma: should she quit and ruin the school’s Christmas play, or go against her mother’s wishes?
To some, the plot might sound a little controversial, but don’t let your thoughts wander too far from enjoying the holiday theme. Think of it as a whimsical fusion of different cultures, ideas, beliefs and classic stories simply stretched a little, but only to get your attention.
The cast is talented and energetic, with solid direction by Bart DeLorenzo. The school plays are silly in a good way, and show the comedic talents of a 20-something ensemble that is clearly enjoying the chance to act like little kids in a holiday show. The actors all have an opportunity to shine, so much so, that we hope to see them again in more fully developed roles. But for now, in this show, their playful antics make the inner child in all of us come alive.
Overall, it’s a sweet holiday entertainment for families. Parents and grandparents will enjoy seeing their little children laugh, and at the same time, they can reminisce about happy moments with their family in years gone by.
Thought-provoking with amusing costumes and a delightful cast of gifted actors, Coney Island Christmas is a story to be told over and over again at Christmastime… oops, no, make that… holiday time! Whatever your religion, this merry little play makes for a family-friendly night out!
The Geffen Playhouse is a wonderful theatre, easily accessible on the Westside of Los Angeles without the traffic problems of going to Hollywood or downtown. What’s more, they have special programs during each play that add to the pleasure of the night. These include Talkback Tuesdays, Lounge Fridays, Wine Down Sundays, Girls Night Out, and Industry Insiders, which offers discounted prices and sometimes parties afterwards. The night we were there, the after-party included a buffet of appetizers, desserts and wines from Gelsons – along with live music from singers doing holiday songs.
Coney Island Christmas
November 20 - December 30, 2012
10886 Le Conte Avenue
Photos by Michael Lamont