A West Side Girl Comes Home: Carol Lawrence Returns to the New York Stage

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27 Dec 2013

Carol Lawrence
Carol Lawrence

The Christmas Carol that's lingering at the Westside Theatre these holidays is one you should remember as the star of the original West Side Story: Carol Lawrence.

She has gone West again. An amiable, in-season antic by Jason Odell Williams, aptly labeled Handle With Care, has returned her to theatre here after too long an absence.

Of course, one could have hoped for a cheerier comeback than she gets here. Handle with care, she ain't. That's not a spoiler alert—it's a plot peg: She arrives in a small backwoods Virginia burg at Christmastime—technically, D.O.A.—and must get in all of her comic licks in the flashbacks that litter the storyline. Difficult yes, but nothing's impossible for a determined bubala who's not about to let a little thing like death deter her from her self-appointed mission of making her granddaughter's life happier than her own. Strange are the ways of love—and a calculated playwright.

To keep this fanciful little love-farce in the air demands aggressively lightweight acting, and Lawrence, at 81, commendably leads the charge for her youthful cast.

Basically, her plot function comes down to posthumously match-making her Israeli granddaughter, who's mending from a romantic meltdown (Charlotte Cohn), with a recently widowed Virginia rustic (Jonathan Sale), and the contrivance that brings them both together is a dunderhead DHX delivery driver (Sheffield Chastain) who has mislaid Lawrence's corpse on its way to the plane to Israel for immediate burial.

Despite her character's short shelf-life (or maybe because of it), Lawrence musters an engagingly lively portrayal of a peppy granny who has come to rural Virginia from Israel to reclaim a love she'd lost as a teenager. "I love that she's indomitable, that she never gives up," she says of this Edna. "She comes across the ocean to find her childhood beau. She's still in love with him and begs her granddaughter not to make the same mistakes she did. 'Don't let go of love,' is the message, 'keep it alive.'"

This comedy tested the waters in Florida, and its reception was such that Douglas Denoff, who co-produced a coupla Tony contenders of late (The 39 Steps and Nice Work If You Can Get It), thought it might find a comparable reaction at the Westside Theatre, which has had the welcome mat out for Jewish-themed entertainments.

"Doug's an old friend," says Lawrence. "He just called and said, 'I'd like to star you in a show I think you'd be right for,' and I asked to see the script. That was all it took."


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