The Geffen Playhouse has begun what could well turn into an annual holiday event with their World Premiere staging of Donald Margulies’ Coney Island Christmas, the Pulitzer Prize winner’s heartwarming, crowd-pleasing look back at a Brooklyn December circa 1935, directed with flair and heart by Bart DeLorenzo.

 Unlike Margulies’ usual edgier dramatic fare (Sight Unseen, Dinner With Friends, Collected Stories, and Time Stand Still come to mind) or DeLorenzo’s more adventurous assignments (like Doctor Cerberus, Shipwrecked!, or the recent Cymbeline), the duo’s Coney Island Christmas is a fairly straightforward comedy told without directorial flights of fancy, a sort of 21st Century answer to 20th Century classics like White Christmas and It’s A Wonderful Life—and an absolutely delightful one at that.

 Stage and screen veteran Angela Paton and 11-year-old Isabella Acres share the role of Coney Island native Shirley Abramowitz, currently grandmothering Clara (10-year-old Grace Kaufman) in sunny Los Angeles, whose reminiscences of one particularly memorable elementary school Christmas pageant send Grandma and granddaughter on a journey back three-quarters of a century to what folks like to call “a simpler, gentler time.”

The daughter of a first-generation Brooklyn shopkeeper and his similarly Eastern European-born wife (Arye Gross and Annabelle Gurwitch), young Shirley grew up in a USA as diverse as It’s A Wonderful Life’s America wasn’t, attending school with kids of every shade, ethnicity, and religious background under the Coney Island sun.

 Still, Christmas wouldn’t have been Christmas back in the 1930s without an annual school pageant, and no one back in that mid-Depression year would ever have imagined, let alone suggested, that the school put on something more politically correct, i.e. less specifically Christian. After all, as 21st Century Clara learns when Grandma flashes the two of them back to her school’s Thanksgiving pageant, no one in the 1930s knew to call an Indian a “Native American,” nor would they have thought that there was anything wrong with the term.

Thus, when young Shirley’s stellar performance as the Thanksgiving Turkey convinces her teacher Mr. Hilton (John Sloan) and French-born music instructor Miss Glacé (Lily Holleman) that only one student in her class has a voice big and rich enough for the lead in the following month’s Christmas pageant—that of none other than Jesus Christ himself, Shirley is beside herself with joy at snagging the starring role.

 Not surprisingly, Mr. and Mrs. Abramowitz are taken aback at the idea of their daughter playing the Christian Messiah and, mostly at mom’s insistence, Mr. Hilton and Miss Glacé are told in no uncertain terms to search elsewhere for their Jesus.

Young Shirley reacts as any child would, declaring that her parents are ruining her life and that she will hate them forever if they don’t let her play the pageant’s leading role, and softy that he is, Mr. Abramowitz finally gives in to Shirley’s tears on one condition, that Mrs. Abramowitz be kept in the dark, thereby allowing rehearsals to go on without a hitch until…

 Now I’m sure that a few theatrical Scrooges out there will grumble “Bah, humbug” at the rose-colored glasses through which Margulies and DeLorenzo have created Coney Island Christmas, and to them I simply say, “Lighten up. It’s Christmas, for goodness sake, or Hanukah as the case may be.”

The rest of us can simply sit back and enjoy the holiday magic as performed by a whopping grand total of nineteen talented L.A.-based actors to whom the Geffen has given the best possible holiday gift: a paying job in an Equity production.

Paton and Acres may be generations apart, but they are both absolutely terrific as Shirley, as is Scenie-winning charmer Kaufman, whose Clara gets to sit back and watch the show every night (and matinee). Gross and Gurwitch play Papa and Mama Abramowitz with warmth and charm and in the case of Gurwitch, more than a bit of bite. Sloan and Holleman light up the stage as schoolteachers in love, and Eileen T’Kaye and Jim Kane provide expert support in various adult cameos.

 The rest of the cast is made up of a couldn’t-be-better group of young actors who, though they may all be in their early twenties, manage to convince us that they are the same age as Acres, doing some of the most irresistible work you’re likely to see anytime soon. Elitia Daniels, Maya Erskine (Anna Ling), Julian Evens (Henry Brown), Ty Freedman, Joe Gillette (Ira Puskov), Rachel Hirshee, Sequoia Houston, Richard Realivasquez, Kira Sternbach (Evie Slotnick), and Andrew Walke (Jackie Sauerfeld) are all compulsively watchable in each and every pre-pageant and pageant scene, so much so that you might have to schedule return visits to catch facial reactions and body language you might have missed the first time. Kudos to these gifted young performers and to director DeLorenzo in insuring the very opposite of cookie-cutter characters on the Geffen stage.

Coney Island Christmas looks and sounds great, beginning with scenic Takeshi Kata’s Coney Island set, Ferris wheel and rollercoaster filling the sky behind, and properties master Rich Gilles’ multitude of 1930s props. Ann Closs-Farley’s fabulous costumes run the gamut from 21st Century Granny-wear to 1935 Brooklyn period outfits to fanciful Christmas pageant garb, with special snaps due wig designer April Metcalf, who I’m guessing designed the children’s many Biblical beards. Lap Chi Chu lights the Geffen stage with a just-right nostalgic glow. John Ballinger gets top marks for his sound design and mood-setting original music.

Coney Island Christmas is based on the short story The Loudest Voice, by Grace Paley. Jill Gold is production stage manager and Kyra Hansen assistant stage manager. Amy Levinson is dramaturg. Casting is by Phyllis Schuringa.

In a holiday season filled with the usual plethora of Christmas Carols, White Christmases, and other seasonal standards, a brand new December tale provides welcome variety to an otherwise business-as-usual month. That Margulies, DeLorenzo, and company make bona fide holiday magic on the Geffen stage is icing on the Christmas cake.

Geffen Playhouse, 10886 Le Conte Ave., Westwood.

–Steven Stanley
November 29, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont

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