A tinsel-decked Christmas tree overwhelms the living room of Atlanta's upstanding Freitag family. The ceiling-scraping spruce is about to be topped by a star until one of the characters declares that "Jewish Christmas trees don't have stars." How the Freitags come to have this gold ornament packed away among their Christmas things is never explained. Its appearance, however, serves as our introduction to this curious group who inhabit Alfred Uhry's 1997 Tony Award-winning comedy The Last Night of Ballyhoo, which recently opened at the Coconut Grove Playhouse under the direction of Jack Allison, who has given us a production that's as downright charming and effervescent as the play itself.
Set in Atlanta in December 1939, Ballyhoo might be described as a lighthearted drama about the price of assimilation paid by prosperous Southern Jews living in an overwhelmingly gentile society. The Freitags' Christmas star may be an anomaly, but as we learn, the tree itself is not. Sunny Freitag (Angela Pierce), one of two young women who live with extended family in a large house in one of the city's exclusive neighborhoods, remarks, "I've had Christmas trees all my life." It isn't until she meets Joe Farkas (Nick Cokas) that she needs to explain to anyone why celebrating the quintessential Christian holiday doesn't detract from her ethnic identity. "It doesn't mean we're not Jewish," she says. The young man, a New Yorker whose family members are Eastern European immigrants, isn't so sure.
Joe is a new employee of Sunny's uncle Adolph, who arrives in Atlanta just in time for two momentous events. One is the premiere of Gone with the Wind, which sends Sunny's pixilated cousin Lala (Jonah Marsh) into a permanent frenzy. Lala spends much of the play, coat in hand, about to dash out the door and go downtown to catch a glimpse of Clark Gable. "Tonight Atlanta is the center of the world!" she exclaims.
The other important occasion is the Ballyhoo, a society ball that draws members of "good" Jewish families from all over the South. It's the major annual winter social event, but it's also a mating ritual, exposing the younger set to people their families would like them to marry. Joe's appearance raises hopes in both Sunny and Lala, neither of whom has a date, though only two weeks remain before the all-important cotillion.
The young man's presence also illuminates the issue of snobbery within ethnic groups. Joe, who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddish phrases, doesn't know what to make of the younger Freitags, whose only contact with traditional Judaism is a musty childhood memory of attending a Seder. "Imagine having to go to one of those boring things every year," says Lala. From Joe's point of view, the Freitags have sold out, trading their religion for an illusory place in a Southern society that will always treat them as outsiders. And he hasn't even heard the Freitags talk about "the other kind" -- of Jews, that is.
Atlanta's German Jews, whose families (including the Frietags) settled there several generations earlier, look down at the recent arrivals, in this case Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia who haven't been in the country long enough to have attained the financial stability and social status of the Freitags.
Can a comedy about assimilation actually take place three months after Hitler's invasion of Poland? Is such a thing possible? Well, leave it to Uhry, whose 1988 play Driving Miss Daisy said more about the protean nature of friendship than about the complexities of Southern racism, to spin a nostalgic yarn about post-Depression Atlanta, in which serious issues such as Hitler, Jewish self-hatred, and one character's discomfort with her ethnic physical features all make cameos without making lasting impressions. The Freitags, for example, are more agitated by the loss of their maid, who quits early in Act One, than by the distant prospect of global war.
Commissioned for the 1996 Olympiad in Atlanta, Ballyhoo paints an exceedingly rosy picture of Southern Jewish life. In fact, the image you're most likely to take away from the theater is that of the conciliatory Shabbat dinner that ends the play, rather than the ugly story Sunny tells of being kicked out of the pool at a friend's childhood birthday party because the friend's country club excluded Jews. (It shouldn't surprise you to learn that Uhry's next project is a musical based on the real-life story of Leo Frank, a Jewish factory owner wrongly convicted of murdering a mill girl in 1913, a case that has stood for decades as an emblem of Southern anti-Semitism. A musical? If anyone can pull this off, it's Uhry.)
The triumph of The Last Night of Ballyhoo is that it manages to underplay weighty issues without actually trivializing them. Indeed Ballyhoo is less Uhry's attempt to write a gritty immigration drama along the lines of Clifford Odets's Awake and Sing! than it is a comic answer to The Glass Menagerie. Here, too, an overbearing mother does battle with a gentleman caller and a somewhat reluctant daughter, albeit with happier results. Make that two daughters. As Lala explains it, the difference between cousin Sunny, a student at Wellesley, and herself is: "She got the brains, and I got the moxie." But moxie isn't everything. Lala, a would-be social success, left the University of Michigan embarrassed at not being invited to join her sorority of choice. It is Sunny, pleasant as her name, who ultimately attracts Joe.