Fine set, worthy players, sadly overrated play. Something went awry on the way to The Last Night of Ballyhoo, and I don’t think it’s got anything to do with this particular production.
It’s the story of a Jewish family in Atlanta on the eve of WWII. Adolph Freitag (played by Mike McIntyre) is a middle-aged bachelor living with his widowed sister Beulah “Boo” Levy (Nancy Julian), their widowed sister-in-law Reba Freitag (Tambre Massman), and Boo’s daughter Lala (Kate Czajkowski). Most of the action centers around Lala’s uneventful social life and her mother’s concern that Lala will lose her last chance at integration into Atlanta’s elite German-Jewish social circles. Lala, as played by Czajkowski, is a melodramatic, excitable daydream casualty who dreams of being a celebrated novelist one minute and something else the next. There’s a lot of pressure on her to get just the right date for Atlanta Jewish society’s biggest annual event: Ballyhoo, a three-day carnival of “hayrides and weenie roasts” culminating in a big dance that’s the closest equivalent to a debutante ball for young Jewish women.
Landing just the right escort for the Ballyhoo dance is a cause for much intrigue, with Boo scouring the countryside for a suitable candidate. Along comes a young business associate of Uncle Adolph in the Dixie Bedding Company, Joe Farkas (Troy Carter), but, hint broadly though she may, eligible Joe Farkas just isn’t interested in taking Lala to Ballyhoo. What he is interested in is taking Lala’s pretty blonde cousin Sunny (Kate Roxburgh). Lala’s only hope is to await the arrival of the second-best candidate, Sylvan “Peaches” Weil (Ryan Keith) in Atlanta and hope he hasn’t found a date yet.
What was satisfying about The Last Night of Ballyhoo: The acting is, as mentioned, generally good, with Julian as Boo and McIntyre as Uncle Adolph especially solid in their roles. As the overwrought Lola, Czajkowski winningly commands most of the attention, but Julian’s matronly gravity gives the Lala scenes ballast. McIntyre—playing a man who tries to keep a healthy distance between himself and all the female drama in the household—makes judicious use of a wry chuckle that’s funny all by itself. Carter, as the Brooklyn-bred Farkas, has a tougher role as the outsider—basically, as playwright Alfred Uhry himself says, he’s the only self-consciously Jewish person in a cast of characters otherwise filled out by largely deracinated Jews in the guise of assimilationist Southern socialites. The only New York accent, too. He does just fine with both, though. The accents are occasionally problematic for everybody, but not at the expense of believability.
Ballyhoo’s biggest drawback is the impoverished dialogue of the script. Uhry’s play has won both a Tony and an Outer Critics’ Circle Award, but it’s hard to see why. Nobody ever says anything especially interesting, especially when grouped in twos. If only Uhry could have let certain scenes lie without cluttering them with idle chatter. When Joe Farkas enters the living room and looks right past Lala at Sunny, for example, it’s the most pregnant moment of the entire play: Sunny’s smitten gaze and Joe’s mounting self-confidence crackle with chemistry, and Lala’s first seizures of jealousy are a sublime pleasure. But Uhry quickly torpedoes the effect with more inconsequential dribbling. Elsewhere, altogether too much time is wasted on anecdotes meant to demonstrate the importance of pedigree and family status in the Atlanta social scene; one or two would have done the job nicely, but an excess of “so-and-so’s second cousin” and so forth brings one too many scenes to a petty (or perhaps petit-bourgeois) halt.
The real shame is that Uhry’s inability to come up with anything really interesting to put in the mouths of his characters eventually compromises the more serious theme in Ballyhoo—namely, the anti-Semitism voiced by the German Jews against “the other kind,” the Orthodox Jews from central and eastern Europe. Regular ol’ anti-Semitism is addressed with one recollection of the time Sunny, as a child, was ejected from a swimming pool at the exclusive non-Jewish Venetian Club (almost the same thing once happened to Groucho Marx, by the way—when his family was barred from using a pool meant for non-Jews only, Marx responded with “Well, my daughter’s only half Jewish—can she wade in up to her knees?”). But the play never gets tough on the matter of internecine prejudice, even though the issue keeps popping up.
Incidentally, none of the Freitags or the Levys knows more than a few words of either Yiddish or Hebrew—not even “yarmulke”—a side effect to the self-prescribed assimilation of the Atlanta Jews that Uhry lays out as bait to get you to buy his preposterously hasty ending. There are flashes of greatness in The Last Night of Ballyhoo, but by that point it’s past repair.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo runs at UM’s Masquer Theatre through Saturday, Oct. 14 and again from Oct. 17 to Oct. 21. Tickets are $7 students/seniors and $9 general. Call 243-4999.