It’s literature gone wild! A laugh-out-loud story by Grace Paley is converted into a world premiere play at the Geffen. Charles Dickens’ classic “A Christmas Carol” becomes a manic mash-up of scripted and sketch comedy with touches of improv in “Twist Your Dickens” at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. And at REDCAT, “The Great Gatsby” metamorphoses into an incredibly inventive, full-scale theatrical staging of the novel.
Wow, what a week it was.
If you’re looking for a new holiday classic that the whole family will love, you need drive no further than Westwood and The Geffen Playhouse, where Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Donald Margulies has created the warmest, perfect-degree-of-schmaltz play based on Grace Paley’s short story “The Loudest Voice.”
I’m very familiar with the story because once upon a time at KCRW, we created two volumes of “Jewish Stories” for radio and “The Loudest Voice” was part of the series, vividly brought to life by Julie Kavner, aka Marge Simpson, whose gritty voice and New York accent made this already funny story even funnier.
As Margulies has rendered it in “A Coney Island Christmas,” Shirley Abramowitz (Angela Paton) visits her great granddaughter who’s home from school with a cold. To entertain her (and get her off her smartphone) she tells the child the story of how she came to play Jesus in her school’s Christmas pageant.
What follows is stage magic. We learn about Shirley’s first-generation immigrant parents’ desire to keep their hard-won Jewish traditions alive. But at school, Shirley’s very loud voice is seen as the only possible salvation for her school’s holiday play, given the dismal dramatic talents of the other students.
The brilliance of Bart DeLorenzo’s direction cannot be underestimated. Of course there’s dramatic conflict as Shirley’s parents disagree about her participation in this play and as Shirley does it behind her mom’s back, with dad’s permission.
But it’s the rehearsals for the plays-within-the play (there’s a Thanksgiving pageant as well) and the actors playing the students, each equipped with his or her own quirky-kid characteristic, that makes it feel so squeamishly real and fall-down funny.
The little playhouse stage with its curtains and canvas backdrops, the cardboard cutouts, the costumes, the wigs, the beards, the kids (all adult actors) who sing out of tune or speak too quietly, the way they forget their lines and incorporate their personalities into their stage characters make everything about this play feel genuinely real.
Hats off to young actress Isabella Acres, a star in the making, for capturing not only Shirley Abramowitz’s loud voice but her desire to try to please everyone and do the right thing. Special applause for mom, Annabelle Gurwitsch, and dad, Arye Gross, for playing their roles so sympathetically.
And kudos to the playwright and director for bringing us a new holiday classic; it was commissioned in memory of the Geffen’s late artistic director, Gil Cates, and it’s a loving tribute.
Don’t miss “A Coney Island Christmas,” on stage at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood through Dec. 30, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays. Bring the kids! For more information, visit geffenplayhouse.com.
Tired of treacle?
Speaking of Christmas classics, we’ve all seen, heard and read Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” but you’ve never seen it deconstructed quite as insanely as The Second City’s version, “Twist Your Dickens,” at The Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.
It’s partially scripted, partially improvised and turned into the kind of jolly madcap romp that comedy troupe Second City specializes in.
Ron West is a curmudgeounly Scrooge who could pass for the genuine article in any production of “A Christmas Carol” except, of course, for the curse words — and I don’t mean “fie on thee” — used to describe exactly how much of a curmudgeon he really is.
This is a grown-up production of the timeless book, which is both skewed and skewered here. Dan Castellaneta (the voice of Homer Simpson) steals the show with his manic characters, including a spot-on impression of James Stewart as a deranged George Bailey from “It’s A Wonderful Life.” The show opens with a “spirited” barbershop quartet — the singers are ghosts. Even “every kiss begins with K” gets a shout-out here.
There’s kind of a through-line, as we do see the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future haunt old Scrooge but there’s always an irreverent breakthrough of theatre’s “fourth wall.” That includes slips of paper upon which audience members have written down their darkest secrets, which get used at strategic moments during the action on stage, even becoming running jokes throughout the production.
The parts of the script that are written are by two Second City alumni, both of whom have been or are now writers on “The Colbert Report,” and a host of special drop-in guests add to the hilarity.
It’s great to be able to find some humor in the holidays, and while this staged mayhem might not be as coherent as “A Coney Island Christmas,” you’ll laugh plenty. Second City’s “A Twisted Dickens” runs at The Kirk Douglas Theatre through Dec. 30. For more information, visit www.centertheatregroup.org.
A novel approach
There’s nothing quite as amazing as realizing that eight hours have passed and you’re not only awake but fully engaged with a novel that you’re not reading yourself but are watching, not as a movie but fully embodied, enacted and enlivened.
Experiencing New York theatre company Elevator Repair Service’s production of “Gatz,” a fully staged production of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” is transformative.
This novel is about language and literature but also about theatre. This production does not attempt to interpret the book and turn it into a play but rather allows the prose itself to bring the book alive.
As you observe a dingy office and its 13 employees become the novel’s characters, acting out their words, and witness the amazing feat of one man narrating an entire novel, you’ll realize why this production has become such a theatrical phenomenon.
I can’t speak highly enough about “Gatz.” But you can only experience it yourself this Friday through Sunday, Dec. 9 at REDCAT in Downtown Los Angeles. Please give yourself this holiday gift. You’ll remember it forever. More information can be found at www.redcat.org.
Sarah A. Spitz is a former freelance arts producer for NPR and former staff producer at public radio station KCRW-Santa Monica. She reviews theatre for LAOpeningNights.com.