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Commissioned by the late Gilbert Cates (who was the Geffen Playhouse’s founder), Coney Island Christmas boasts a serviceably novel premise, as immigrant Jewish parents (Arye Gross and Annabelle Gurwitch) in 1935 Brooklyn cope with the prospect of their 10-year-old daughter (Isabella Acres) playing Jesus in a school Yuletide pageant. Young Shirley is cast for her loud-mouthed voice that she is unafraid to use, and while her mother especially chafes at the affront to their heritage, she also implicitly recoils at the prospect of her increasingly assertive child drawing the attention of the goyim.
Framed by Shirley as an elderly grandmother (Angela Paton) reminiscing to her grandchild (Grace Kaufman) in present-day Los Angeles, this fable, whose whole truth is at least sentimentally suspect, makes a slender anecdote on which to hang even less than 90 minutes of action, padded by not one but two apparently real-time grade school theatricals that are intended to be endearingly inept. As a period evocation, the nostalgia is so mistily threadbare that generalized iconic snippets of the Depression decade are used without rigorous regard for the timeline. Mild stuff even compared to Woody Allen’s analogous Radio Days, this is not Clifford Odets, nor was it meant to be. In the real past, one might have expected the drama teacher (John Sloan) to inform the smitten music teacher (Lily Holleman), upon his surprised discovery that she is Jewish, to reject their prospective courtship as inappropriate.
Even so, there is occasional bite to the argument (the playwright is Donald Margulies, for chrissakes) that Jewish participation in American assimilation can be perceived as a pogrom that attacks identity insidiously over time. While Gross makes the avuncular papa into a credible archetype, Gurwitch supplies whatever rancorous subtext runs through the text, providing welcome pungency to the saccharine scenario.
As most of the comedy was redundant, the already brief show could benefit from still further concision. Nevertheless, as a play rather well tailored for its purpose and occasion, highly accessible and accommodating a large cast, one could imagine its appeal as an addition to the seasonal repertoire.
Venue: The Geffen Playhouse (runs through Dec. 30)
Cast: Angela Paton, Arye Gross, Annabelle Gurwitch, Isabella Acres, John Sloan, Lily Holleman, Eileen T’Kaye, Kira Sternbach, Maya Erskine, Andrew Walke, Joe Gillette, Julian Evens
Director: Bart DeLorenzo
Playwright: Donald Margulies, based on Grace Paley’s short story “The Loudest Voice”
Set Designer: Takeshi Kata
Lighting Designer: Lap Chi Chu
Music and Sound Designer: John Ballinger
Costume Designer: Ann Closs-Farley
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