Coney Island Christmas
Also see Richard's reviews of Ideation and Amaluna
An elderly but sprightly grandmother (Lillian Bogovich) takes her great-granddaughter (Sarah Benjamin) on a jaunt down memory lane to a time in her childhood in 1935 when she participated in two holiday school pageants. Her teachers, Mr. Hilton (James Kopp) and music teacher Miss Glace (Sara Renée Morris), have a knack for corralling their young charges and creating unique, unintentionally hilarious plays with song.
We're also introduced to depression-era Coney Island and the shop on the boardwalk owned and run by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Abramowitz (Michael Rhone and Maria Marquis). We watch as Shirley's young teen self (Roneet Aliza Rahamim) meets her friends, helps in the store, and navigates school life. We also witness the recurring rituals of her Jewish faith, performed at the dining room table with familial love.
After the wonderfully zany performance of the school's Thanksgiving play, Shirley is tapped by Mr. Hilton to play Jesus Christ in the upcoming Christmas pageant and, while she's thrilled, her family is definitely not, especially her mother. The conflict that ensues and what Shirley goes through with her family make for more substantial material, and the eventual resolution delivers the heartfelt message of the playbut not before we get to see another happily nutty yet utterly charming pageant from the school.
Margulies masterfully combines holiday stories, legends and rituals, to illuminate our commonalities, our sameness under the skin, while also honoring the beauty and wisdom of different traditions. He does it with such ease and unabashed humor that the ending is a bit surprising, sneaking in joy and love in a few simple and touching moments. In this case, memory is more than nostalgia; we're transported to what may appear to be a simpler time, but we see its very real complexity in the dilemmas the characters face, and the enduring message is decidedly contemporary.
The casting in City Lights' production is darn near perfect, and strong throughout the ensemble. The adult actors playing the youthful characters bring so much character and individuality to their roles it's great fun to watch their antics; they also get to perform numerous other minor roles, all with terrific aplomb. The principal actors, notably Rahamim, Rhone, Marquis, Kopp, and Morris, nicely balance the humor and the more serious themes, capturing the honesty of their characters. Bogovich and Benjamin lurk in the background, providing excellent narrative and commentary, linking the past with the present.
Ron Gasparinetti's set design effectively evokes the Coney Island boardwalk while managing to become numerous other locations including the school stage. Lighting by Nick Kumamoto provides beautiful counterpoint for dreams, nightmares, journeys in time, and mood. Jane Lambert has outdone herself with the panoply of amazing costumes, and Tunuviel Luv has had a fabulous field day with the properties.
Kudos to director Kit Wilder and his team for a delightfully different holiday confection, one that is guaranteed to tickle your funnybone and touch your heart with seasonal cheer.
Coney Island Christmas by Donald Margulies, presented in its Bay Area premiere by City Lights Theater Company, 529 S. Second Street, San Jose; through December 22. Tickets $17 - $32; available at www.cltc.org or at 408-295-4200.
- Jeanie K. Smith