"Coney Island Christmas" Delivers Mild Holiday Cheer
Every December L.A. theatre essentially goes into hibernation for a month, preparing for seasons new, and audiences are left with a dozen variations on A Christmas Carol. There's nothing wrong with Carol or The Santaland Diaries or The Eight, in fact, they've become perennials and as such represent a somewhat reliable way to fill the coffers on a yearly basis. To this end, the Geffen Playhouse has commissioned a show it would like to be its own regular holiday show, Donald Margulies' Coney Island Christmas, but unfortunately, while this is a solid production, the play is at best a mildly entertaining trifle.
In modern-day Los Angeles, grandmother Shirley Abramowitz (Angela Paton) tells a story of her childhood to her sick-at-home granddaughter. The tale takes place in Depression-era Brooklyn, where Young Shirley (Isabella Acres) lives with her parents, (Arye Gross and Annabelle Gurwitch) who own a small market. Young Shirley has been cast in a leading role in the school Christmas pageant, but her mother doesn't want her participating because their family is Jewish. Young Shirley doesn't want to disobey her mother, but she also doesn't want to let the other participants in the play down, so she has a difficult decision to make.
Paton brings vivacity and charm to the show, and has a lively acting partner in Grace Kaufman as granddaughter Clara. Acres delivers the right blend of brash enthusiasm and occasional insecurity to Young Shirley and she anchors the show with professional poise. Gross is warm and funny as Shirley's supportive father, and Gurwitch is effective and moving as Shirley's conflicted but well-meaning mother. John Sloan registers as drama teacher Mr. Sloan, but he's even better as a fortune teller in a dream, and Lily Holleman has fun with Miss Glacé, an overly intense French music teacher. Eileen T'Kaye is terrific as always in a couple of sharply etched roles, but Kira Sternbach steals the show as Shirley's friend Evie, her expert comic timing and delivery frequently sending the audience into fits of hilarity.
Director Bart DeLorenzo stages the show efficiently and gets good work from his ensemble, although the material doesn't give him much to work with. Playwright Margulies has said in interviews he was commissioned to create a "Jewish Christmas play," but in trying to satisfy both parts of that mandate he winds up in a middle zone that fulfills neither. Placing a school Christmas show as the subject of an entire play keeps the focus unnecessarily small, and while seeing performers deliberately act badly so as to seem like clueless student actors is amusing in the short-term, watching it for half of a 90-minute production gets stale. Takeshi Kata's set is also surprisingly bland and undetailed, considering all of the period Coney Island visuals that might have been used.
"Coney Island Christmas" plays at the Geffen Playhouse through Dec. 30. Tickets are available online.