1/27/2019        THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO                       Stage Door Players

 

****½  ( A ) 

 

UNCONSCIOUS BIGOTRY

Welcome to Atlanta, 1939.  Gone with the Wind is about to make its much-ballyhooed premier, Christmas has come to the (slightly) Jewish Freitag/Levy household, and plans are afoot for the annual “Ballyhoo,” a cotillion sponsored by the local German Jewish “Club.”  But young Lala Levy has not been asked.  Her mother, desperate for some sort of social acceptance, is hoping a Louisiana acquaintance will rise to the occasion.

 

Such is the set-up for Alfred Uhry’s 1996 Tony winner, The Last Night of Ballyhoo.  What seems like a warmly nostalgic comedy about the “haves” of Atlanta, quickly becomes a quietly intense meditation on unconscious bigotry -- you know those “Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist” feelings we all have no matter how much we deny them.  You see the Levys and the Freitags are “German Jews,” many generations established in Atlanta – so many in fact that they have forgotten Yiddish and decorate with a Christmas Tree (To paraphrase matriarch Boo, It’s a National Holiday, not a Religious one.  Unless you put a star on top).  Into their world comes Joe Farkas, a devout man from New York (and an “Eastern European / Russian Jew”).  He is received as an outsider, even though he works for patriarch Adolph.  When he decides he likes College-bound cousin Sonny, things begin to get interesting.  (You see, Ballyhoo is an event sponsored by “Our Club” and those others are simply not welcome -- Those Eastern Europeans have their own club after all).

Alfred Uhry is very good at creating memorable southern Jewish characters (go no further than Driving Miss Daisy and Parade for proof).  Here, he creates a very unique family that nevertheless strikes chords of recognition, even in my Yankee Gentile heart.  You see Adolph and Boo (short for Beulah) are brother and Sister, Boo’s husband having died when Lala was still very young.  Adolph’s Brother’s sister, Aunt Reba, is also part of the household, and it is her daughter, Sonny, who is being wooed by Joe Farkas.  If this sounds a bit too complex to follow without an Ancestry.Com diagram, fear not – Mr. Uhry sets up the family dynamic fairly early and it is crystal clear throughout.

 

It helps that the actors are all quite adept at bringing out idiosyncrasies and remote unspoken layers. And they look as if they’re related (I actually checked the program to ensure myself that Ann Wilson and Maggie Birgel, who play Reba and Sonny, aren’t REALLY mother and daughter – they’re not).  When the “Gentleman from Lake Charles,” a distinctly ungentlemanly “Peachy Weil” (Elliot Folds) makes his entrance with his loud brash (ginger) brays of laughter, he’s like an alien visitor, one who is quickly embraced into the family.  They are also very good at defining their relationships through contrast – Boo and Lala are loud and aggressive and perilously close to one-note caricature, while Reba is quietly (perhaps intentionally) distracted and Adolph (and don’t you just love the irony of that name), the lone “rooster” in this “hen house” is also quiet and still – his recollection of the one time he was actually in love is understated and not a little sad, and, after the antics of his sister and niece, most welcome indeed.

 

This is indeed a family unit created by duty and proximity and (not a little) affection much more than by the complicated tapestry of DNA and blood.

 

Once again, Chuck Welcome has created a beautiful set that, even in Stage Door’s intimate space, suggests a grand and well-appointed home.  If I have one complaint, it’s that the top of the staircase is blocked to audiences at extreme House Right, and the Christmas Tree at its base creates another sightline issue for the final “coda” (Would there be time to strike it before that final scene?  Probably not.)  J.D. Williams’ Lighting added a patina of gold to the General Wash, which made it SEEM more period, and Costume Designer Jim Alford has created two gowns for Sonny and Lala that were gorgeous to wear to Ballyhoo, but were also indicative of their very different characters.  All of the costumes were just as character-specific, period-specific, and even mood-specific.  A “Very well done!” to all the tech folk on this one.

 

So, I saw this play in New York the year before I was married, but have thought very little of it since then, missing a couple of well-received local productions.  Here, though, it seemed to strike a chord with me that makes me want to see it again, or to at least read it (I know I have the script buried somewhere in my theatre library.  Thar’s either a tribute to how intimately effective this production was, or a condemnation of a forgotten lackluster quality in the Broadway staging. 

 

Or, it could just be that I’ve become extraordinarily sensitized to the unconscious nature of too much bigotry these days, and this aspect of the show really stood out for me.  In any case, I have to thank Mr. Uhry for this play and thank director Mira Hirsch and her wonderful cast for bringing it to life!

 

So much better than what those OTHER people could have done.

 

 

   --  Brad Rudy  (BKRudy@aol.com   @bk_rudy    #StageDoorPlayers  #Ballyhoo)

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