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Grant Golden Review: The Last Night of Ballyhoo

THE BASICS: The Jewish Repertory Theatre opens its eighth season with Alfred Uhry’s period piece, a domestic comedy-drama. The Last Night of Ballyhoo, which won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play, plays weekends (minus Friday nights) at the Alleyway Theatre, through November 7th. Saul Elkin has directed the cast of seven. Expect a longish evening; with its single intermission, Ballyhoo runs close to two and a half hours.

THUMBNAIL SKETCH: The action takes place in Atlanta, Georgia, in December of 1939. Apparently working from personal experience, playwright Uhry takes us into the lives of an extended family of well-to-do, highly assimilated Southern Jews. Some become engrossed in curious regional holiday customs, in particular a debutante’s ball known as Ballyhoo, while the world premiere of Gone With the Wind and the rise of Hitler’s war machine occupy the general public’s attention. There is increasing friction between Lala Levy, the envious, daydreaming, plain-Jane daughter of hovering Boo Levy, and her cousin Sunny, a beautiful, intellectual Wellesley girl, as the hours tick down to the Big Event. Will Lala finally get herself an escort? Don’t worry; the play is not nearly as trivial as it seems in capsule summary!

THE CAST: In this world of Jews who devoutly wish they were Episcopalians, there is no reason to invoke a Jewish flavor, and this makes things easier for the largely non-Jewish cast. All the players are competent, although there do appear to be different styles of acting on display. Lisa Ludwig (as Lala’s ever-frustrated mother), Linda Stein (as Sunny’s cheerful, bird-like mother) and Ryan Cupello (as Lala’s obnoxious suitor, “Peachy” Weil), all get plenty of laughs, but lean more towards caricature than the others. Peter Palmisano provides both warmth and substance as the bachelor uncle, Adolph. Jennifer Leibowitz’s Lala is strikingly intense, and makes a good contrast to Bonnie Jean Taylor’s elegant Sunny.
 
THE PLAY AND THE PRODUCTION: Playwright Uhry struck gold with his first theatrical offering, Driving Miss Daisy, in 1988. Ballyhoo is no Miss Daisy, but it has its charms. Confrontations of engaging characters produce a stream of steady, if predictable laughs. The play is at its best exposing the self-loathing and cutting class distinctions that typify these in-name-only Jews. Unfortunately, this meaty stuff gets pretty short shrift; Uhry concentrates on channeling The Glass Menagerie (Boo/Lala), and on the friendlier, comic elements of his tale. There is a lovely short coda, but it comes out of left field, and seems to be more of an author’s daydream than any future reality. Director Elkin has made good use of the detailed, architectural, two level set. And there are some charming period costumes from Donna Massimo.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Credit the JRT for finding something different, and giving it a very reasonable production. I think that Jews in particular will find this intriguing, and a bit of an eye-opener, but there is a good deal here that anyone could enjoy.

RATING:  THREE BUFFALOS (OUT OF FIVE).

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