In “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” the non-practicing Jews of 1939 Atlanta don’t care much for the Jews who actually live their religion. They’re known contemptuously as “the other kind” of Jews, the ones foolish enough to be orthodox when the hip thing to do is act like a Christian.
The Freitag household is a prime example of this, what with a Christmas tree in the front window and all. They consider themselves Jews, but only by tradition.
Adolph Freitag (David Phillips), a never-married middle-aged fellow, lives in this house with his widowed sister, the loud and crotchety Boo (Karen Baird), and with his widowed sister-in-law, the sincere but bubble-headed Reba (Michelle Evans).
Boo’s daughter Lala (Carolyn Stone) lives there, too, frittering her life away because college was too hard. Not so for Reba’s daughter Sunny (Colleen Hansen). She’s smart, sensible and doing fine at Wellesley, making her narrow-minded cousin and aunt extremely jealous.
Life for the family turns upside-down when Adolph brings home a new employee, Brooklyn-born Joe Farkas (Christopher Clark). Joe is a practicing Jew who even knows Yiddish slang, and while he’s not exactly appalled at the Jack-Jews he encounters, he doesn’t understand them, either. (“Are you people really Jewish?” he asks Sunny.)
The big event is Ballyhoo, a week-long festival where all the Jews in the South get together for fun and games, culminating in a big dance at an exclusive country club — the kind of club where “the other kind” aren’t allowed. Not realizing this, Joe invites Sunny to the dance, while Lala goes with the obnoxious and bleating Peachy Weil (Matt Biedel).
There’s social commentary here, about how people within a specific demographic group can even discriminate amongst each other. But the commentary is toned down by a light-hearted, even fluffy script, and a production that comes off as light-weight. Christopher Clark as Joe is the only one who gets any emotions; everyone else is there either to fill out the ensemble (which they do nicely, particularly the sweet Michelle Evans as Aunt Reba), or to provide contrasts.
It’s those contrasts that drive home the point of the show; the attitude is unmistakable. The characters who are most vocal in their contempt for “the other kind” — Aunt Boo, Lala and Peachy — are the ones who are the most grossly absurd, personified by the buffoonish jackassery of Peachy. (Even their names prevent us from taking them seriously.)
The show is well-acted and moves along briskly. Clark and Hansen have some degree of chemistry together, though Sunny’s “this is just how I grew up” explanation seems too simple a resolution for a show that could have a lot more to say.
Saying something doesn’t seem to be director Laurie Harrop-Purser’s point, though. Providing a warm, easy-going comedy for the holidays is what’s on the agenda, and to that end, the play succeeds.
In conjunction with this play, I had the opportunity to interview the playwright, Alfred Uhry, over the phone. This was a big deal, apparently, because the guy won the Pulitzer Prize for "Driving Miss Daisy," and never does press interviews. (He did it for me as a favor for a friend of a friend, or something like that.) Being a writer myself, I got a bit tongue-tied speaking to a Pulitzer Prize-winner. All I could think of to ask him about was what it's like to win the Pulitzer Prize -- which, fortunately, he was glad to talk about. (It's really cool, from what he says.)
Due to horrific editing, this review ran on Dec. 3 with the last four paragraphs -- the ones that actually express opinions -- removed for space purposes. It made us all look bad (but mostly me, as it made it look like I'd written a Deseret News-style review that was nothing more than a plot summary). So we re-ran it two days later, in its entirety.