It's a wonderful life for the Abramowitz clan in "Coney Island Christmas."
Donald Margulies spun this Jewish twist on a Christmas story from a Grace Paley short story, "The Loudest Voice," about life in Brooklyn in the hardscrabble 1930s. The Pulitzer-winning playwright, best known for "Dinner with Friends" and "Collected Stories," mashes up chutzpah and sentiment in this 95-minute holiday drama that touches on issues of culture, heritage and assimilation. Tenderly directed by Kit Wilder, this unabashedly schmaltzy charmer runs through Dec. 22 at San Jose's City Lights Theater Co.
Grandma Shirley (a wry Lillian Bogovich) is the sort of hard-core East Coast transplant who still knits scarves during an 80-degree California winter. One sunny Hanukkah, she tells teenage granddaughter Clara (Sarah Benjamin) all about growing up near the Coney Island Boardwalk during the Depression, when bread lines and desperation made it hard to maintain good will toward all.
Although little Shirley (an endearing Roneet Aliza Rahamim) had devoted parents -- a kindly grocer papa (a sympathetic Michael Rhone) and a disapproving mama (a perfectly etched turn by Maria Marquis) -- she had to work hard at fitting in. Her bustling neighborhood is steeped in the flavors of the old world, from gefilte fish to sour pickles. She has a loud voice and a strong personality, neither of which are appreciated by her strict mother. It doesn't help matters when her drama teacher, Mr. Hilton (James Kopp), casts her as Jesus in the annual Christmas pageant. Oy vey!
Shirley's doting father is willing to go with the flow of a new world. Any country not rife with pogroms is aces in his book. But his wife clings to the past. She revolts at the notion of her little Jewish girl starring as Christ.
"We let our Shirley play Jesus, then what?" she demands. "She becomes a nun?"
While the plot seems a bit thin, there's no denying the endearing "God bless us, every one" spirit of the show. Certainly it's nice to throw a new holiday play into the usual mix of chestnuts. And the material plays to the strengths of this troupe, its exuberance and pluck, while downplaying a certain lack of polish.
The playwright also manages to lace the comedy with a touch of ruefulness. Shirley's mother is not entirely mistaken that becoming part of mainstream America means losing some of the cultural identity she has so long held dear. That's too high a price for her to pay.
Rhone and Marquis find a lot of nuance in characters that could easily come off as nostalgic caricatures.
To be sure, the play has its rough spots. The awkwardly cute Thanksgiving pageant sequence goes on too long. The narration sometimes feels unnecessary. Other than Shirley, all of the child characters seem a little generic.
Still, the Christmas spectacle is a giddy pastiche of every yuletide tradition from Santa to Scrooge. Only a Grinch would begrudge Margulies his sappy happy ending.
"COney island Christmas"
By Donald Margulies, presented by City Lights Theater Co.
Through: Dec. 22
Where: City Lights Theater, 529 S. Second St., San Jose
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $17 to $30; 408-295-4200, http://cltc.org