Los Angeles Theater Preview: CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS (Geffen Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on November 25, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles

CHRISTMAS ISLAND

With the superfluity of Christmas-themed theater descending upon America like a Biblical plague, there is one play which is opening this week that has intrigued and even excited me for both personal and critical motives: Donald Margulies’ world premiere, Coney Island Christmas, commissioned by and playing at the Geffen Playhouse.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of Geffen Playhouse’s CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS in Los AngelesThis will be Margulies’ fifth collaboration with the Geffen. His fourth in 2009, Time Stands Still, opened and re-opened on Broadway before I finally caught Austin Pendleton’s revival at Steppenwolf earlier this year. Margulies, who could have easily gone for a didactic diatribe about contemporary foreign policy in the mid-east, instead explored the behavior of an injured photojournalist returning from the Mid-East. Stage and Cinema’s Dan Zeff wrote, “Margulies’ writing is continuously intelligent, challenging, and often very funny. The four characters are all passionate in their beliefs, but they speak as individuals, not as mouthpieces for the playwright’s agenda.”

Because his writing is character-driven, the audience is an active participant that can easily empathize with both sides of an issue, as was evidenced in other works by the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, such as Collected Stories and Dinner with Friends. The issues in A Coney Island Christmas encompass American Jews and Christmas, and since my childhood was framed by both a dreidel and A Charlie Brown Christmas, I am greatly anticipating Margulies’ approach to the subject.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of Geffen Playhouse’s CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS in Los AngelesPublished in 1959, short story writer and poet Grace Paley’s The Little Disturbances of Man, a collection of short stories, included “The Loudest Voice,” an eight-page first-person recollection of Shirley Abramowitz, a Jewish girl in Depression-era New York who, because of her clear, loud voice and expressive reading, is recruited to play the voice of Jesus in her public school’s annual Christmas pageant. Shirley is flattered and zealously agrees to become Jesus, if only for an afternoon, but her immigrant parents are somewhat divided. Shirley’s supportive father, Misha, says, “What’s the harm? You’re in America!” Her mother, Clara, doesn’t quite share his optimism. However, later after the pageant, the mother comes round: A prying neighbor opines that a number of Christian students in the school were not given parts in the play, to which Clara responds, “They got very small voices; after all, why should they holler?…You think it’s so important that they should get in the play? Christmas…the whole piece of goods…they own it.”

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of Geffen Playhouse’s CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS in Los AngelesThe story, as with most of Paley’s slender but acclaimed output, has been analogized and studied ad infinitum, not just for the political and feminist nature of her writing, but for the poetic nature of her narratives. Margulies had read the story in high school, so when Geffen Playhouse founder Gil Cates, who passed away last year, approached Margulies a few years ago with the idea for a family holiday show, Margulies decided to use “The Loudest Voice” as his springboard. (In an interview, Margulies said that he warned Cates that if he wrote a Christmas play, it would be a “Jewish Christmas play,” to which Cates replied, “Even better.”)

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of Geffen Playhouse’s CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS in Los AngelesThe young Shirley (played by Isabella Acres) is still cast in the pageant, and Mr. and Mrs. Abramowitz (Arye Gross and Annabelle Gurwitch) are still the exasperated immigrant parents, but this timeless and universal tale of what it means to be an American during the holidays will include a much-older Shirley (Angela Paton), and a Thanksgiving pageant as well. A host of colorful characters ranging from neighborhood mothers to Shirley’s classmates and teachers will be played by Elitia Daniels, Maya Erskine, Julian Evens, Joe Gillette, Rachel Hirshee, Lily Holleman, Gracie Kaufman, John Sloan, Kira Sternbach and Andrew Walke. Margulies is dedicating this production to the memory of Cates.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of Geffen Playhouse’s CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS in Los AngelesOf course, any playwright is at the mercy of the production company. Stage and Cinema reviewed two productions of Collected Stories, one on Broadway and a recent outing at the Odyssey, proving that without the right director and a superb acting ensemble, the results can be bleak. Fortunately, Evidence Room founder Bart DeLorenzo, surely one of the most inventive directors on the American theater landscape, is at the helm for Coney Island Christmas. DeLorenzo won the LA Drama Critics Circle Award for his direction of AntaeusKing Lear (2010), and won the same award the following year for the Odyssey’s Margot Veil, which S&C called  “a Wonderland of creative ideas.” This year, A Noise Within’s Cymbeline had S&C raving: “Under Bart DeLorenzo’s deft direction, Cymbeline gains new layers of meaning that are only hinted at in Shakespeare’s text. Above all, it becomes a story of opposites, especially that of good and evil, which DeLorenzo ingeniously accomplishes by casting each actor in two quite different roles.” Last June, the distinguished director was honored by Theatre Communications Group (TCG) with the Alan Schneider Directing Award, which is given to an exceptional director who is not yet known nationally.

The Geffen sustains astounding production values throughout their season, but the technical team for this show includes two of my favorites: Costume Designer Ann Closs Farley and Lighting Designer Lap Chi Chu. So far, Coney Island Christmas is the best-wrapped and most attractive offering in the theater; I can’t wait to open it and see what’s inside.

Tony Frankel’s Stage and Cinema preview of Geffen Playhouse’s CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS in Los Angeles

photos by Michael Lamont

Coney Island Christmas
Geffen Playhouse in Westwood
now in previews; opening night November 28, 2012;
scheduled to end on December 30, 2012
for info on special events during the run, visit Events
for tickets, call 310-208-5454 or visit http://www.geffenplayhouse.com

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