The late Gil Cates commissioned Donald Margulies’ “Coney Island Christmas” as a Geffen Yuletide treat, and it turns out to be a present no one will want to take back. As with many gifts, the wrapping isn’t much to speak of, in this case a weak framing narrative taken from a Grace Paley short story. But what’s inside – not one but two kid pageants superbly staged by Bart DeLorenzo, and a pan-denominational message – is a jewel to be cherished.
Taking a cue from “The Princess Bride,” great grandma Shirley (Angela Paton) tells little Clara (Grace Kaufman) all about her Depression childhood in southern Brooklyn, back when every grocery shelf displayed Wheaties and Shredded Wheat; every radio played Jack Benny and FDR; and Native Americans were called Indians whenever the first Thanksgiving was retold.
Young Shirley (Isabella Acres) is blessed with a loving grocer papa (Arye Gross) and stiff-necked, demanding mama (Annabelle Gurwitch). Think Tevye and Golde, and you’ve nailed them.
Conflict brews when drama teacher Mr. Hilton (John Sloan) casts Shirley as Jesus in the Nativity story over parental objections (“a shonda for the goyim”). But if you expect Mama Abramowitz won’t have a change of heart and the show won’t go on, you probably thought George Bailey was going to end up in jail for embezzlement. No, on the 1935 boardwalk under the shade of the Cyclone roller coaster, with detailed facade by Takeshi Kata, it’s very much a wonderful life. Neighbors are nosy but lovable (“Oy vey”) and all ethnicities coexist without clashing
Paton warmly narrates a cliched tale not written or played with enough sense of stakes. Gurwitch reacts with stock ire over Shirley’s casting, though she says she’s terribly worried about assimilationist danger. And we never buy that Shirley’s performance is sink or swim for the pageant. Margulies neglects to assign her a scene or speech that would allow us to see why only she could play Jesus (beyond the loudness of her voice), while allowing Mama to recognize her daughter’s genuine talent.
But feh!, as any number of characters are wont to say. Who cares about the boring exposition, when the rest of the fruitcake is so delicious? DeLorenzo masterfully engages a huge cast of twentysomethings — and how great to see a huge cast on a stage again — in Thanksgiving and Christmas extravaganzas done totally straight and unselfconsciously, corny props and all. (Ann Closs-Farley’s costumes are a witty knockout.) Both plays-within-a-play are simply hilarious in their spot-on evocation of childhood performance values.
The list of standouts is almost endless: Joe Gillette a sly scenestealer as King Herod and Ebenezer Scrooge (yes, it’s that kind of mishmash); Kira Sternbach’s Virgin Mary, so delighted to take center stage she can’t stop grinning and monitoring the audience; the drolly deadpan Maya Erskine; Ty Freedman, almost completely without lines yet positively glowing with the joy of being on stage. They and the rest create fully shaped, consistent portrayals of real-life youthful exuberance.
You come for the pageants and you stay for the timely moral. In our separatist era when everyone puts up a “holiday tree” and the words “Merry Christmas” are somehow anathema, Margulies makes a mellow, persuasive case for Christmas being a time for everyone. With its pagan roots and connections with Hanukkah, why shouldn’t we all claim it? (This is why Gurwitch needs to inject her role with more steel and anguish. She defines the opposing view.)
In the end, “Coney Island Christmas” takes the same stance as “The Book of Mormon”: What matters isn’t the dogma but the underlying values. In response, the stage is filled with tidings of comfort and joy. Merry Christmas, everyone, Margulies’ play says without apology. And shalom while you’re at it.