“Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars!” Or at least they don’t according to Boo Levy, one of the matriarchs of the affluent southern Jewish Freitag-Levy household where the family has barely heard of Passover, but the aforementioned tree is proudly displayed (sans star, of course) in the front parlor.
Alfred Uhry’s 1997 Tony Award winning serious comedy The Last Night of Ballyhoo follows the Freitag-Levys in 1939 Atlanta as they prepare for Ballyhoo, the Southern German-Jewish social event of the season. The play has old-fashioned charm, as though it was written at the time in which it is set.
Like a sepia-toned photograph, The Last Night of Ballyhoo is rife with nostalgia, but somewhat two-dimensional. Theater J’s competent production has its delights but, despite the talented cast and design team, ultimately can’t overcome Uhry’s problematic script.
Atlanta is abuzz with the premiere of Gone With the Wind, the world is on the precipice of war, and Ballyhoo is nigh. If Boo’s oddball daughter Lala (Shayna Blass) has any chance of finding a husband, she needs a date to the dance. Enter Joe Farkas (Zack Powell) from the Bronx. Joe is the newly hired protégé of Lala’s Uncle Adolph (Sasha Olinick), head of the household and proprietor of the family business, Dixie Bedding Company. One problem, though: Joe likes Lala’s cousin, Sunny (Madeline Rose Burrows), an earnest and studious Sociology major at Wellesley. Young women clashing over their mutual crush, a meddling Mom’s date-finding machinations, and even, of course, crises over what to wear. It’s a set-up for an evening of family-centric comedy.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a play with a double life. Half drawing-room comedy, half commentary of the assimilation and intra-ethnic prejudices of Southern Jewish people, but never a cohesive whole. Uhry (Driving Miss Daisy) adds a hefty dose of social criticism. You see, Joe is the “other kind” of Jewish. The kind from eastern Europe, who speaks Hebrew and Yiddish and observes Shabbat. The kind that German-Jewish families like the Freitag-Levy’s don’t associate with.
Director Amber Paige McGinnis’ production, much like Uhry’s writing, takes its stylistic cues from the past. It’s like the entire production, from the sets and costumes to the music, was lifted directly from the set of a 1930’s – 40’s movie and placed on the Theater J stage. It’s an apt choice in that the real charm of The Last Night of Ballyhoo lies in its specificity of time, place and community. Daniel Conway’s well-appointed Greek revival parlor is the picture of upper middle class affluence, but is less successful when depicting locations outside of the home. Kelsey Hunt’s costumes effectively evoke the period, most memorably in Lala’s fantastically over-the-top Ballyhoo gown.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo
closes December 31, 2017
Details and tickets
The show is at its best when exploring the family dynamics of the Freitag-Levy clan to comic effect. Susan Rome’s Boo fires off poisoned-dagger one-liners in a Southern drawl, while her social machinations are perpetually confounded by Lala’s awkwardness. Sunny’s mother Reba (Julie-Ann Elliott) remains ditzilly (and delightfully) removed from the drama, and the winningly put upon Adolph just wants to stay out of the way. The characterization (with the exception of Joe and Sunny), like the production design elements, is reminiscent of the films of the era: more stylized than naturalistic. It’s a choice that works in comic moments, but makes it challenging for the actors to explore the depths of their characters, so the tension between them frequently falls flat.
It’s Joe and Sunny that have the hardest lift. Though Powell and Burrows have a nice chemistry, these characters never develop enough personality for us to fully invest in them, and lack the comic zing that brings the others to life. With their relationship, Uhry dips his toe into the thought-provoking topic of the social stratification of this community, but never dives deeply. Even Hitler, who looms in the background of this world, barely receives a mention.
The Freitag-Levys are rendered with so much warmth and affection, it’s as though Uhry liked them too much to expose them to any real danger. He can’t help but gift them with an optimistic ending. But, in doing so, Uhry over-simplifies the complex issue of prejudice, undercutting the play’s effectiveness as a piece of social commentary. Despite these issues, many will undoubtedly find The Last Night of Ballyhoo to be a delightful and uplifting play for the holiday season. For me, however, this production’s charms cannot overcome the script’s generically rendered take on a subject that deserves in-depth, thoughtful exploration.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo by Arthur Uhry. Directed by Amber Paige McGinnis. Featuring Shayna Blass, Julie-Ann Elliott, Susan Rome, Sasha Olinick, Zack Powell, Madeline Rose Burrows and Josh Adams. Scenic Designer: Daniel Conway. Costume Designer: Kelsey Hunt. Lighting Designer: Colin K. Bills. Sound Designer: Justin Schmitz. Props Designer: Timothy J. Jones. Casting Director: Jenna Duncan. Dialect Coach: Rebecca Bossen. Stage Manager: Kate Kilbane. Produced by Theater J.