The Last Night of Ballyhoo

Christmas, 1939, in Atlanta is the setting of “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” being performed at Pioneer Theatre Company through Dec. 19. But “Ballyhoo” is no ordinary Christmas play. For one thing, all the characters are Jewish. Well, they’re all mostly Jewish. Their degree of Jewishness is in fact the central issue of the play.

Alfred Uhry’s gentle comedy, directed by Susan Gregg, takes place in the home of wealthy businessman Adolph Freitag (Robert Elliott). Living with him are his prim sister Boo (Darrie Lawrence) and his sister-in-law Reba (Sherry Skinker), as well as Boo’s daughter Lala (Mandy Fox) and Reba’s daughter Sunny (Michelle Six). Sunny is a smart, pretty college student home for the holidays; Lala is a little ding-headed and goofy, and rather jealous of her cousin.

The whole family is Jewish by heritage, but keeping one foot in the mainstream of Atlanta society. They have a huge Christmas tree — but no star on the top, because that symbolizes Jesus’ birth too strongly. (“Nice Hanakkah bush,” notes one character wryly.) One would never know they were Jewish at all — in fact, one of the things Lala is jealous of Sunny for is that Sunny is blessed not to LOOK Jewish.

None of this fence-sitting is a problem until Adolph brings home his new employee Joe (Harry Bouvy), a Jewish fellow from a Jewish neighborhood in Brooklyn. He has lived his whole life being openly Jewish and is somewhat surprised to see people hiding it. Lala likes Joe, but Joe goes for Sunny instead, and the ensuing conflicts all come to a head on the last night of Ballyhoo.

Oh, right. Ballyhoo. It was a series of annual Southern Jewish society affairs held during the first half of this century. Single Jewish people would go there to meet other eligible bachelors and bachelorettes and hopefully find someone to marry. It would last several days, culminating in a big ball, at which everyone was always impeccably dressed.

These Ballyhoos were sponsored by the ritzy Jewish social clubs, some of which were rather exclusive, prohibiting even other types of Jews. (Reform-owned clubs wouldn’t allow orthodox Jews, for example.) With Joe being more orthodox than Sunny and her family, there’s trouble, and everyone has to take a long, hard look at their values.

The theme of “Ballyhoo” — embrace your heritage and don’t be afraid to be who you are — is conveyed well enough, and the acting is all superb, with some very endearing characters being established. Elliott stands out as Adolph, and the matronly Lawrence, with her well-moneyed old lady Southern accent, is splendid as Boo. Jordan Matter, appearing as Lala’s Ballyhoo date Peachy Weil, plays the character as an obnoxious moron. His and Lala’s scenes turn into a surreal “Saturday Night Live” sketch, with Matter braying like an idiot and annoying the crud out of everyone. This is intentional, I think, as his character is meant to be a small-minded bigot that the audience is supposed to dislike.

The play is a comedy, though never knee-slappingly funny. Its humor is gentle and playful. The show is amusing and light-hearted, with enough reality near the end to give it the depth it needs.

At one point, Lala, wearing an enormous Southern Belle hoop skirt, faints and collapses on the floor. When she does, her skirt flies up, revealing her bloomers. My friend Phil, who saw the play with me, thought that was the highlight of the show and was disappointed I didn't mention it in the review.