They should have called it Corny Island Christmas. Corny in a good way, of course.
Donald Margulies’ new play, Coney Island Christmas celebrates what Jewish kids have fantasized about for a couple of generations now: an ecumenical Christmas that they can participate in without shocking the neighbors.
After all, Christ was a Jew, wasn’t he?
And so it makes perfect sense for Shirley Abramowitz (the Annie-like moppet Isabella Acres) to play a mop-bearded Christ in PS 100’s Christmas pageant. Besides, she has the loudest voice in the school! (The Loudest Voice is what Grace Paley called the short story from which Margulies adapted this play.)
The pageant itself is hilarious, incorporating every cliché from the Three Wise Men (what’s myrrh?) to Santa Claus and Tiny Tim. Everybody gets a role. The kids are diffident and awkward and totally adorable. And every parent who has ever had to sit through his grammar school child’s acting debut will empathize with Shirley’s Mama and Papa.
And therein lies the tale. Mama (Annabelle Gurwitch) is a staunch traditionalist: she is afraid that her daughter’s role as Christ will assimilate her into Christian values at the expense of her Jewish heritage. Oh ye of little faith.
In contrast, Papa (Arye Gross) is sympathetic to his daughter’s wishes, but, as is traditional in many Jewish households, he won’t argue with his wife on Shirley’s behalf.
It’s a totally predictable plot, but much fun to watch. Especially Shirley’s best friend Evie Slotnick (the delicious Kira Sternbach), who plays her multiple parts in the pageant with a stoic face and arms and legs that refuse to move in sync. Her movements, awkward and uncoordinated, make her the uproarious star of the show. Cheers to her and to director Bart DeLorenzo.
The role that is supposed to be the starring role, however, isn’t. It’s the sappy great-grandmother, the elderly Shirley Abramowitz (Angela Paton) who anchors the show (and by anchors I mean wields a heavy weight) by telling the story of her childhood to her young great-granddaughter Clare (Grace Kaufman).
The dialogue here is too gooey to be poignant and it really distracts from the rest of the plot, which is otherwise straightforward and well acted.
There are some funny scenes that every Jew who was ever a kid will recognize. And some that may annoy the “goyem”---like sitting through the blessing of the Chanukah candles twice.
Donald Margulies, who has won a Pulitzer Prize, among many other prestigious awards, has had his plays performed in venues all over the world. He teaches English and Theater Studies at Yale and continues to write beautifully crafted plays, mostly with Jewish themes or subplots.
Coney Island Christmas isn’t one of his best, but like all his work, it’s worth seeing, if only to watch the kids at play and Takeshi Kata’s fetching revolving sets.
Coney Island Christmas will run Tuesdays through Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 3 and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 2 and 7 p.m. through December 30th at the Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave. in Westwood. Call (310) 208-2028 for tickets.