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.
Lala, meanwhile, is prodded by her mother Boo (Donnah Welby), to encourage the attentions of Peachy Weil, a boisterous representative of a prestigious Louisiana family. "I can do better than Peachy Weil," Lala scoffs.
"No you can't," answers her mother, who refers to Lala's dateless state as "your situation."
In this ensemble drama with an exceptionally strong cast, Welby's depiction of Boo stands out. Her forceful performance doesn't upstage her colleagues, but she is nonetheless missed when she's not onstage. Her character is a kind of demonic Jane Wyatt, a hybrid of too-cheerful sitcom mother and Southern belle hovering over every round of her daughter's dating contest as though it were a championship bout. Lala feels that God may have favored the blond Sunny. But Lala is wrong. God smiled on her when He gave her a mom like Boo.
Almost every other aspect of this production's casting and design seems to have been divinely inspired as well. Jack Allison's direction is too understated to call attention to itself, yet it is replete with intelligent touches. Rob Odorisio's set (the play unfolds almost entirely in the Freitags' living room) is exquisitely outfitted to suggest the physical comfort with which the family lives outside the house as well as in it. Ellis Tillman's costumes show a spirited interpretation of period detail, while Stuart Duke's lighting design underscores the show's most haunting moments.
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Particularly well cast is Philip LeStrange as Adolph, the unmarried uncle of Sunny and Lala. Though Adolph is a beleaguered male in a household of idiosyncratic women, LeStrange makes this predicament seem like a multilayered blessing. He also gets some of the best lines. Here's his explanation for sister-in-law Boo's rudeness just after she's returned from a screening of Gone With the Wind: "Forgive her," he says to Joe. "She's been looking at Clark Gable for four hours, and she has to come home and look at me." Less easy to navigate is the role of Reba Freitag, played by Pat Nesbit. As written she seems to have been inserted into the play as the voice of daffiness. Nesbit, however, infuses Reba with humanity.
Romantic leads Nick Cokas and Angela Pierce don't need to do much more than look good together as Joe and Sunny. Happily, though, both give performances that are full of substance. More challenging are the roles of Peachy and Lala. One cynical joke underlying the play is that Peachy, whose family brags that they've been in the United States for 150 years, is hopelessly vulgar, while newcomer Joe is cultured and genteel. Hunter Bell plays Peachy as an obnoxious buffoon, but one who has just enough charisma to match Lala's affable gawkiness misstep for misstep. Together Peachy and Lala create an unlikely but amiable chemistry that buoys the play. Their energy makes the rest of us root for the success of everyone at the Ballyhoo.
Can a comedy about assimilation actually take place three months after Hitler's invasion of Poland? Leave it to Alfred Uhry.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Written by Alfred Uhry; directed by Jack Allison; with Hunter Bell, Nick Cokas, Philip LeStrange, Jonah Marsh, Pat Nesbit, Angela Pierce, and Donnah Welby. Through December 27. Coconut Grove Playhouse, 3500 Main Hwy, Miami; 305-442-2662.