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

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by Thomas Antoinne on December 1, 2012

in Theater-Los Angeles


On paper, it must have seemed like such a great idea: create a new holiday show as an alternative to the onslaught of Christmas Carols and Nutcrackers, have Pulitzer-winning Donald Margulies adapt an ecumenical holiday story by literary darling, Grace Paley, add a touch of meta-nostalgia by including in the press release that the Margulies commission was a pet project of deceased but still beloved Geffen founder, Gil Cates, and you have the potential for a new holiday classic.

So what went wrong?

The source material, unfortunately, does no one any favors.  Grace Paley’s stories have never adapted gracefully to the stage.  Her trademark fiction is best known for its terse observations and subtle shifts in human interactions.  While her holiday story The Loudest Voice is much more accessible than most Paley fiction, this particular story lacks the one thing that might have sustained it as a viable theatrical event: dramatic stakes.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS at the Geffen in Los AngelesConey Island Christmas is at best a one-joke memory play.  When contemporary young Jewish Clara (Grace Kaufman) doesn’t want to participate in her school’s holiday show, Great-Grandmother Shirley Abramowitz (Grace Paley-look-alike, Angela Paton) takes her back in time to the 1930s when Shirley was cast as Jesus in the Christmas pageant at her Brooklyn school.  Young Shirley’s father was supportive, while her mother objected.  In the end, Young Shirley triumphed as Jesus, and her mother came around and took pride in her daughter’s performance.  Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot of story there to hang a 90-minute play on, and Margulies doesn’t seem interested in developing the piece more fully.

Director Bart DeLorenzo does his best to keep this memory play moving and stages it as if to preemptively head off any boredom.  But there’s little he can do when the source material lacks real dramatic conflict.  Theatrical flourishes and stagecraft abound.  At one point snow even falls, but because it’s not attached to a story of consequence, the effect melts away before any effect has a chance to resonate or stick.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS at the Geffen in Los AngelesWhere DeLorenzo gets it wrong is in the play’s style.  The piece works best when it follows Grace Paley’s grounded earnestness as a memoir.  However, from the opening lines, we are served sit-com line deliveries in search of a laugh track. Margulies makes matters worse by throwing in an occasional Yiddish word for some cheap, easy laughs.  Several of the actors playing teens never seem clear as to whether they are satirizing young people in a pageant or simply playing for broad comic effect.  Half of time, Coney Island Christmas feels like it’s pandering to the lowest common denominator, and half of the time, it feels like a lovely memory play about the 1930s.  It works best when it relaxes into the more organic style of sweet nostalgia.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS at the Geffen in Los AngelesThe piece is not a complete waste of time as some of the actors do very good work.  Arye Gross maintains his reputation as one of the finest actors in the Southland by bringing an authentic kindness and compassion to the role of Mr. Abramowitz, Shirley’s father.  John Sloan as Mr. Hilton, the fastidious music teacher who organizes the school pageants, has an understated WASP-y passion, shining most brightly in his speech describing the joys of storytelling.  Angela Paton is always likeable as Shirley, the Great-Grandmother and very reliable narrator, albeit, a little hesitant on some of her lines opening night. And all of the real children in the cast, especially Isabella Acres as Young Shirley and Grace Kaufman in the thankless role of Great-Granddaughter Clara, keep up with the grow-ups like pros.

DeLorenzo merely leads his design team towards competence.  Lap Chi Chu’s lighting never draws attention to itself.  Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes very naturally suggest two eras.  Only Takeshi Kata’s sets seem a little spare, never quite knowing how to blend in with the stone proscenium of the Geffen Playhouse.  Geffen Playhouse sets always feel a little cheap and under-designed; Coney Island Christmas is no exception.

Thomas Antoinne’s Stage and Cinema review of CONEY ISLAND CHRISTMAS at the Geffen in Los AngelesIn the end, the lack of satisfaction falls in Donald Margulies’ hands.  His adaptation doesn’t ever arrive in a specific point of view and distracts by raising more questions than it answers.  Shirley’s “loudest voice” is never contextualized beyond its literal application, the rational for the inevitable casting of the young Jewish Shirley as Jesus. It would have been satisfying to learn how that “loudest voice” showed up later in Shirley’s life, but it’s never quite clear if Margulies is attempting a significant coming-of-age story within the memory play.  With very little inspired amusement beyond the initial sight gag of seeing a Jewish girl dressed like Jesus, the piece never find its way as a theatrical event and runs out of steam long before the final curtain.

Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol became a holiday classic because it offers a story of hope and redemption, two tropes that adapt beautifully for the stage.  Margulies’ Coney Island Christmas by comparison offers very little beyond nostalgia for a more innocent time; it seems better suited as a memoir than a theatrical event.  Like Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory, Coney Island Christmas would be best enjoyed in its source material read silently by the fire.  

photos by Michael Lamont

Coney Island Christmas
The Geffen Playhouse in Westwood (Los Angeles)
scheduled to end on December 30, 2012
for tickets, visit Geffen

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