BWW Reviews: Lovely CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS Brightens Geffen Stage
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies triumphs with nostalgia, tradition and simplistic storytelling in his stage adaptation of Grace Paley's The Loudest Voice re-envisioned Coney Island Christmas, a world premiere one-act now center stage at the Geffen through December 30. In present day Los Angeles a grandmother (Angela Paton) tries to motivate her granddaughter Clara (Grace Kaufman) by telling her a story about her youth in Depresion era 1935 Brooklyn/Coney Island. Clara is avoiding the school play by feigning illness and grandma's rich tale of how she first went on stage and found true joy proves an inspiration not only to Clara but to anyone at any age who refuses to stop dreaming.
Paley's short story had no conflict, so Margulies has infused the tale of Shirley Abromowitz with 18 characters of mixed religious background who struggle with the foibles of everyday life and ... survive. With little Shirley (Isabella Acres) championing over her parents' traditional beliefs to become her own person, there is surely hope for future generations. Margulies' dialogue, as always, is crisp, funny and totally to the point, never employing exaggeration or excess. This asset is clearly present in Coney Island Christmas giving the optimistic message its universality. The conflict between parents and children is eternal, but somehow in 1935 both sides learned to work it out without inflicting permanent damage. It's something for younger audiences to reflect upon, as they tend to remember the worst elements of their upbringing, ignoring the small, subtle behaviors that made for a vital learning experience.
The ensemble are all outstanding. Mr. and Mrs. Abromowitz (Arye Gross and Annabelle Gurwitch) are the hard working parents of little Shirley who try so desperately to hold onto their heritage, especially mama. Gurwitch makes her a thoroughly understandable woman, unlikeable at first in her resistance to change, but clear and stalwart in her actions. Older Shirley remains a spectator throughout the story, sitting on the sidelines like a cheerleader proud of her newly discovered sense of independence. Paton makes her a chilling reminder of how, even though life changes, we should preserve the child inside. Acres is delightful in her first role on stage, appropriately alternating between moods of sweetness and toughness as required. Drama and music teachers MR. Hilton and Miss Glace (John Sloan and Lily Holleman) are caring and supportive of Shirley's dilemma and are terrific to watch, especially Sloan as he directs the pageant. His youthful enthusiasm is so apparent as he mouths the words to every line his students utter. Eileen T'Kaye is memorable in a smaller role as the yenta Mrs. Kornblum, who lives to complain. But it is the actors playing the students in the pageants that are to be congratulated most. It is challenging to play the awkwardness of youth, but these actors nail it. Their fresh approach to performing with the utmost indifference, anxiety and complete lack of professionalism is hilarious. Director Bart DeLorenzo is to be credited as he keeps the rehearsals and actual performance so terribly real, quirky, proving that life upon the stage is unpredictable indeed for these young amateurs. By the way, the surprise elements Margulies adds to the Christmas pageant lend much enjoyment.
Takeshi Kata's set is amazing with a turntable that revolves in front of the colorful Coney Island boardwalk background, to display interiors. Ann Closs-Farley's costumes, with rag mop-looking wigs and beards for Jesus, the sheperds and wise men, lend pure 30s authenticity.
Coney Island Christmas is a lovely evening of theatre for everyone, regardless of religious beliefs. Everyone will be moved and first and foremost entertained by Margulies' little theatrical parable.