People are so sensitive these days about offending other’s religious beliefs, but such wasn’t the case if we look back a few decades. It wasn’t out of the ordinary to see a nativity play within a regular school once upon a time, and it is such a play that causes such a conundrum in Donald Marguilies’s Coney Island Christmas, currently being performed by Gallery Players at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus.
Coney Island Christmas is a memory play based on the autobiographic writings of Grace Paley. The piece is narrated by Shirley (Laurie Alexander, so caring and gentle) to her great-granddaughter, Clara (Nora Butter, a little pistol if ever there was one). In it, she tells of a time in 1935 when she was growing up in Brooklyn and was known for her loud voice; it’s that distinctive instrument that gets her, a Jewish girl (the younger Shirley is played by Rose Clubok, feisty and determined) born to immigrants, cast in the plum role of Jesus Christ in her school’s Christmas play! Needless to say her parents have mixed feelings about her casting causing friction; should Shirley be allowed to perform, fulfilling her desire to perform, or should she be forbidden from participating because she is Jewish and the part does not line up with the religious beliefs her parents are trying to instill in her?
The aforementioned Ms. Alexander (Shirley), Ms. Butter (Clara), and Ms. Clubok (young Shirley) are standouts in the cast, as are Brian A. Belair as Mr. Abromowitz (Shirley’s father), Kate Willis as Mrs. Abromowitz (Shirley’s mother), Rick Cohen as Mr. Hilton (the drama teacher), and Laura Crone as Mrs. Glacé (the French teacher). Mr. Belair and Ms. Willis are strong as Shirley’s parents, but it is clear that they love their daughter and believe they are doing what’s right for her; the scenes between Mr. Belair and Ms. Clubok are particularly poignant; Mr. Cohen is perfect as the emphatic amateur playwright/drama teacher, quite jolly and matter-of-fact with his delivery; and Ms. Crone has an impressive French accent and measured way of speaking that is eerily accurate; Ms. Crone is so good that I completely didn’t recognize her from Evolution’s Zanna, Don’t! from last month until I read her bio.
Bobby Belair is a surprise delight as Henry, who doesn’t appear to utter a word until he emerges as an angel in the play-within-a-play at the end. The whole Christmas play at the end is a riot as it is apparent that the staff has taken some liberties with the story and added in a few surprise characters, which I won’t spoil by naming them here. What’s notable about both the Thanksgiving and Christmas plays (aside from how hilariously they have been rewritten) within Coney Island Christmas is how they are performed quite intentionally flat and awkwardly by the cast, a great touch by co-directors April Olt and Sonda Staley.
You don’t have to be Jewish or Christian or even religious at all to enjoy Coney Island Christmas; it’s very cute and sweet but also has some genuine laugh out loud moments in it. The play runs for one act at around seventy-five minutes, is family friendly, and ultimately quite a nice holiday play more about the importance of family and honoring one’s background than anything else.
*** out of ****
Coney Island Christmas continues through to November 20th in the Roth-Resler Theater at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Columbus located at 1125 College Avenue, and more information can be found at http://columbusjcc.org/cultural-arts/gallery-players/