REVIEW: “Coney Island Christmas” — Inland Valley Repertory Theatre

Updated: Dec 10, 2020

"Nobody Has a Voice Like My Shirley!"

Christmas obviously isn’t for everyone, but it’s pretty hard to avoid even if your plan for the 25th involves a little Facetime with the In-laws, some Chinese food delivery and “Christmas With the Kranks” one more time on Roku. Anyway, where else ya gonna go? The stores that are actually open broke out the decorations right after Halloween, so those have already been up for a month. And as for theatre, it’s now wall to wall virtual productions of “A Christmas Carol” from days gone by as we finally polish off the remaining Thanksgiving leftovers.

It’s enough to put even an eggnog-loving drama critic like me in a “Bah, humbug!” mood.

Fortunately, one notable alternative to the standard holiday fare has arrived from the good folks at Inland Valley Repertory Theatre to spice up the season: Donald Margulies’ “Coney Island Christmas.” This captivating one act (coming in at about an hour, ten) is based on an elaboration of the short story by Grace Paley, "The Loudest Voice,” which mashes up chutzpah and sentiment, and conjures up so many Yiddish-inflected turns of phrase I thought I was watching an episode of “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” for a moment. This smaltzy charmer touches on issues of culture, Americanism, heritage and assimilation and is astutely directed by IVRT co-owner, Frank Minano.

True, “Coney Island…” won’t topple Dickens’ cash reindeer, but my 7pm computer viewing did bring me the joy of laughter along with the gift of wonder (Scrooge even makes a cameo appearance in the show). So even though everyone is locked down, “home alone” with cabin fever and you’ve heard the TV blasting “keep the change ya filthy animal” a little too often, the Margulies play will no doubt give you hope.

The script is balanced harmoniously with its crack ensemble, composed of a cast of not only heavily experienced alumni players, but young, rising stars whose names may not be on everyone’s lips right now, but whose talent is undeniable, and whose level of Christmas spirit would astound even the geniuses over at Caltech.

Commissioned by the late Gilbert Cates (director of the Geffen Playhouse, where the show originated), IVRT’s “Coney Island Christmas” seems to be vying for the Jewish “Christmas Carol” slot. And the Pulitzer-winning playwright Margulies, whose work (“Sight Unseen,” “The Model Apartment”) often grapples with Jewish identity, is just the man for the job. Interestingly enough, this drama is well on its way in becoming a holiday staple itself, or at least an addition to the seasonal repertoire.

The frame of the piece has Shirley Abramowitz (Cindi East) recollecting to her great-granddaughter Clara (Carolina Flores) a tale from her hardscrabble, Depression-era Brooklyn childhood in a heavy New York accent. Ms. East’s Grandma Shirley is the sort of hard-core East Coast transplant who still knits scarves during an 80-degree California winter. But it’s Hanukkah, and she’s not having much luck getting into the holiday spirit. She has Clara close her eyes, and they travel back in time to a bustling, noisy immigrant world near Coney Island’s Boardwalk—Ferris wheels, side-shows and roller coasters. A time of rations, cheese lines, and “Buddy, can you spare a dime.” Apples are selling for a nickel apiece. When she was growing up, Shirley’s part of town was fragrant with potato latkes, gefilte fish and sour pickles, and she regularly frequented the movie houses showing Shirley Temple movies. “With a name like Temple, she’s gotta be Jewish!”

Suddenly, Young Shirley (an endearing Moira Mitchell) is once again a bright 12ish-year-old with a notably loud-mouthed voice that she is unafraid to use. A voice that gets her in trouble at home (Mr. Kornblum: “You’re giving the neighborhood a headache!”) but opens doors at school—the stage door, most exciting of all. After making a successful debut gobbling as a turkey in the school’s Thanksgiving pageant, she is cast as Jesus in the Christmas pageant. Oy vey!

Shirley’s father (Steve Siegel), a shopkeeper happy to be in a country free of pogroms, takes the news in stride, but Shirley’s mother (Lauren Mayfield) is up in arms at the idea of her Jewish daughter starring in a Christian extravaganza. “We let our Sh