Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Kit's review of Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley and Arty's reviews of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, The Marriage of Figaro and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Coney Island Christmas is by Donald Margulies, a Pulitzer Prize winner for Dinner with Friends. Margulies wrote both the dramatically scalding Time Stands Still and the light-hearted romp Shipwrecked: an Entertainment, so he has the range to address serious topics as well as to whip up pure fun. Both of those elements find their way into Coney Island Christmas.
The play is set primarily in 1935 Brooklyn, though told in flashback from the frame of a present day California setting where Shirley Abramowitz is trying to cheer up her great grand-daughter Clara, who is sick in bed. It looks like Clara will miss out on being in her school's holiday pageant the next day, but she insists that it's "stupid," questioning why they have to include Kwanza. To Clara, Kwanza seems like a rip-off of Hanukkah. Both involve daily candle lighting with special candle holders. Even the names for those, "menorah" and "kinara" sound alike to her. Shirley tells Clara that she thinks it's interesting to learn about other cultures, and goes on to tell Clara about being in her school's Christmas pageant when she was Clara's age. Going into flashback mode, we see Shirley as a young girl in Coney Island, living in an apartment over the kosher delicatessen her parents run. Shirley is known for her loud voice, which, along with her outgoing personality, leads her drama teacher Mr. Hilton and her music teacher Miss Glacé, to cast her in the holiday pageant's lead role: Jesus Christ.
Shirley is tremendously excited about this, but her Jewish immigrant parents, who left Europe to escape persecution and to practice their religion in peace, are not. Mrs. Abramowitz especially fears the erosion of her daughter's Jewish identity by taking part in Christian observances, and suspects that the teachers are knowingly doing this. She forbids Shirley to be in the play. Mr. Abramowitz is caught in the middle between wanting to support both his daughter, the apple of his eye, and his more traditional wife. He contends that Christmas, despite its origins, is not strictly a Christian holiday, but a celebration with elements that go back to pagan times, just as some of the Hanukkah rituals do. The resolution of this family crisis offers an understanding of the value of protecting and honoring one's heritage, as well as the process of integrating into what we, for better or worse, call American life.
In the course of the eighty-minute play, we are treated to two school pageants in their entireties. The Thanksgiving pageant is very humorous, if not quite politically correct (it is, after all, set in 1935) or historically accurate. The Christmas pageant is uproarious, with the audience laughing heartily throughout. Margulies depicts the bumbling kids and their questionable stage presence with both mirth and affection. He also conveys the out-size ambitions of the drama teacher, Mr. Hilton. He finds ways to have great fun with the characters' tics and concerns, but there is not a mean bone in the piece. Margulies also weaves samplings of Hanukkah observance into the play, which creates a nice balance of cultural identification.
But Margulies does take some short cuts that undermine the play's potential. For example, in 1935 Brooklyn, Shirley Abramowitz would not be the only Jewish student in her school, but the play gives the impression that she is the only one with a conflict regarding the Christmas pageant. This isolates the central conflict from the context of a community. In the opening scene, Margulies tries to give the issue a contemporary context by throwing in the Kwanza reference, but then never returns to thisnot even to correct Clara's error in thinking that Kwanza ripped off the word "menorah" to come up with "kinara", when in fact "kinara" is the Swahili word for candle holder.
The tone, though, is of homespun wisdom, lessons gently learned, and nostalgia for simpler, if less enlightened, timesand Coney Island Christmas works just swell within that universe. Director Elena Giannetti gives the whole enterprise a light, tenderhearted feel, so we can consider the serious question of how assimilation involves tiny steps of give and take, but not get too ponderous on the subject. The set, designed by Leazah Behrens, cleverly provides spaces for the Abramowitz' kitchen, Shirley's bedroom, and their delicatessen, the latter which includes a set piece that turns around to become the school room. This allows Giannetti's direction to move the action fluidly from scene to scene. Samantha Kuhn Staneart has designed costumes that aptly reflect the 1935 time frame.
The cast does a splendid job of bringing this gentle story to life. Mary Cutler is wonderful as the elder Shirley Abramowitz, narrating her remembrance for her great-granddaughter with caustic humor, and also playing a kvetching customer of Abramowitz's store. As Clara, Gabriella Rosen does a fine job of going from oh-so-bored tween to an engaged and inspired young lady, gratefully accepting her great-grandmother's legacy. Lily Wangerin is winning as young Shirley, with the charisma to explain why she would be chosen for the lead in her school pageant, whatever the theme.
Anthony R. Johnson imbeds warmth, humor. and a bit of mischief in Mr. Abramowitz, and Shana Eisenberg conveys the sincere concerns of a mother who wants to protect her child's birthright, and fears the intrusion of cultures still foreign to her. Michael Conroy is delightful as Mr. Hilton, the drama teacher with ambitions far exceeding the capacity of his young and (mostly) untalented students. You get the feeling he meant to be directing on the Great White Way, not a Coney Island elementary school. Lydia Wildes is a sweet and steady presence as Miss Glacé, who offers unexpected insights into the challenge facing the Abramowitz family. The rest of the cast carry their roles as young Shirley's classmates well. Vocal accents are well played throughout, with Keely Wolter as dialect consultant.
Coney Island Christmas premiered in 2012 at the Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles, so it has not yet been as widely seen as many other seasonal shows. It is a lovely piece of work. It may not take as deep a cut as it could, examining how we learn to live with those who come from different background, with different languages, beliefs, and customsa topic in much need of attention right now. Yet, it does gently illustrate an example of this very thing occurring, offering hope and good will, which are, after all, the cornerstones of the season. Both the play and Lyric Arts' production are recommended.
Coney Island Christmas continues at Lyric Arts Main Street Stage through December 17, 2017, 420 East Main Street, Anoka MN. Tickets from $30.00 - $26.00; seniors $28.00 - $24.00; Age 25 and younger $25.00 - $25.00. For information and tickets call 763-422-1838 or visit lyricarts.org.
Writer: Donald Margulies, based on Grace Paley's short story "The Loudest Voice"; Director: Elena Giannetti; Scenic Design: Leazah Behrens; Costume Design: Samantha Kuhn Staneart; Lighting Design: Kurt Jung; Sound Design: Rosendo St. Pierre; Prop Design: Taylor Palmer; Scenic Artist: Mark Lopez: Dialect Consultant: Keely Wolter; Stage Manager: Jenna Hyde; Assistant Stage Managers: Lea Brucker and Will Rosin.
Cast: Michael Conroy (Mr. Hilton), Mary Cutler (Shirley Abramowitz), Shana Eisenberg (Mrs. Abramowitz), Zach Hays (Ira Pushkov). Ellie Herringshaw (Evie Slotnick), Anthony R. Johnson (Mr. Abramowitz), Brad Krieger (Jackie Sauerfeld), Brandon Lund (Lester), Rebekah Meyer (Henrietta Brown), Gabriella Rosen (Clara), Lily Wangerin (Young Shirley), Lydia Wildes (Miss Glacé), Dara Xiong (Anna Ling), Meng Xiong (Giuseppe Sabatino).