The Last Night of Ballyhoo is the second installment of the “Atlanta trilogy” by playwright Alfred Uhry, all of which are set among the Jewish community of the American South in the early part of the 20th Century. Ballyhoo won the 1997 Tony Award for Best Play and is the only comedy of the trilogy.
The first is by far his most well known, Driving Miss Daisy, about a wealthy Jewish woman in 1948 whose declining driving ability in old age compels her to hire a chauffeur who happens to be black, and a key theme is that, despite their seemingly opposite circumstances, they share insurmountable ostracism from mainstream society, her because she is Jewish and him because he is black. Miss Daisy won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1988 and was made into a film the following year that won a number of Academy Awards including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay (for Uhry).
The third is the rarely performed Parade (not to be confused with the 1960 musical revue) about the 1913 trial of Leo Frank, winning the 1998 Tony Awards for Best Book (for Uhry) and Best Original Score. An Ivy League (Cornell 1906) professional engineer, Frank moved to Atlanta in 1908 to take a job at a pencil company owned by Uhry’s great-uncle. When the body of a female 13-year-old employee – child labor was legal in those days – was found raped and strangled, despite considerable evidence pointing to the guilt of another man who became the main witness against him, Frank was convicted and sentenced to death in a sensational trial fueled by openly anti-Jewish fervor whipped up by screeds in the popular press. Even at the time, the trial was regarded as so unfair and irregular that the governor commuted the sentence, causing a mob to kidnap Frank from the authorities and murder him by lynching, an act that is generally believed to have scared half of the Jewish population of the South into relocating elsewhere.
This historical background is essential to understanding The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Set in 1939, there is no mention of the Frank trial and lynching a quarter-century earlier, but the Jewish community of Atlanta was still scarred by isolation and ostracism. Because Jews were not welcome at social clubs or events in white Protestant society, they organized their own such as the multi-day “Ballyhoo,” the culmination of which (the last night) is a dance for young Jewish singles from wealthy families. (Ballyhoo is fictional but based on reality.)
The play opens with LaLa Levy (Sarah Reed), in her early 20s going on 16, placing a star at the top of the family Christmas tree, much to the annoyance of her mother Beulah “Boo” Levy (Mary Sue Frishman): The Jewish family is sufficiently assimilated to have a tree, but not to adorn it with the explicitly Christian symbol evoking the star of Bethlehem. Boo is widowed, her husband having worked at the family business with her brother, Adolph Freitag (Michael Jepson), who now runs the company and heads the household. Living with them is Reba Freitag (Christine Reynolds), the not-too-bright widow of the brother of Adolph and Boo, and her daughter Sunny Freitag (Ali Mitchell) is coming home from college for Christmas.
Although about the same age as LaLa, Sunny is a serious college student with an intellectual bent, while LaLa tried college but found it was beyond her, occupying her time with popular entertainment such as radio shows and movies. At the beginning of the play, LaLa is so entranced by the premiere of Gone with the Wind – a huge event in Atlanta (where is it set, if I have to explain that) in December 1939 – that she plans to go downtown just to hang out and try to catch glimpses of its stars, which the rest of her family regards as a juvenile waste of time.
Into this mix enters Joe Farkas (Hassan DeMartino), a Jew from Brooklyn who has been recruited by Adolph as his business assistant. LaLa for a time pursues him, but she fails to understand that he is put off by her childish immaturity and grating personality, and his attraction instead to Sunny she blames on her “too Jewish” nose and other features that, LaLa believes, make her ugly and unattractive. Joe is smart and ambitious, and the mutual attraction between Joe and Sunny is obvious but inexplicable to the clueless LaLa.
Boo is terrified LaLa is aging out of marriageability and her last chance to land a respectable husband may be the Ballyhoo dance, so she pulls out all of the stops to play matchmaker, arranging for LaLa to be escorted by the visiting Sylvan “Peachy” Weil, Jr (Tom Steenburg), the scion of a well-to-do Jewish family from Lake Charles, Louisiana. (Unusual in the South, Lake Charles was founded as a frontier outpost in the late 1700s by a Jewish trader and as a result became a well-known enclave of Jewish life.) Peachy is boorish and stupid, prone to dumb jokes at the expense of others – the perfect match for LaLa.
Joe from New York City is proud of his Jewish identity and is shocked by the degree of assimilation among the Southern Jews, even ridiculing the Christmas tree as a “Chanukah bush,” an anachronistically modern idiom. Joe, while hardly a religious fanatic, sees the lack of understanding of basic Jewish practices, such as holiday observances, as a threat to their identity. Eventually Joe becomes aware that the Sephardi Jews (of German and Spanish descent) such as Peachy regard as inferior the Ashkenazi Jews (of Eastern European descent) such as Joe, almost mirroring the social divide between Christians and Jews, an irony lost on the Sephardi who, anxious to seem respectable among white Protestants, exclude the Ashkenazi from membership in their own clubs.
Among pleasantries and concern about social activities, Adolph reads the newspaper that talks of Hitler having started a war in Europe just three months earlier, a war that we in the audience know will turn into a cataclysm, in two years bringing in the United States as a combatant with the bombing of Pearl Harbor and turning young men such as Joe and Peachy into soldiers, a war that Peachy says he cannot see has anything to do with him. Of course, we also know that the war will result in the extermination of six million European Jews, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi, and so thorough the destruction of an entire culture that it will necessitate the coinage of the word “genocide.”
The comedy is by no means lacking among these serious themes, and the excellent cast keeps up the pace. Reed as LaLa exudes the boundless enthusiasm of a teenager, turning what could be an annoying character into a charming and endearing one. Michael Jepson (the identical twin brother of director David Jepson) as Adolph provides the axis around which much of the action turns, clearly demonstrating his favor of his mature niece Sunny over his childish niece LaLa, but his calm, deliberate demeanor and reasonable, realistic expectations hold disaster at bay. Mitchell as Sunny has to navigate a romance with Joe while not alienating boy-crazy LaLa, a difficult task. DeMartino as Joe, whose credible Brooklyn accent makes him stand out like a sore thumb among the Southerners, plays something of a straight man to the comedy. Frishman as Boo and Reynolds as Reba make a convincing pair, almost as if their respective daughters, LaLa and Sunny, had been switched at birth. Steenburg as Peachy portrays a character whose essence is juvenile immaturity and annoyance, but he does it with such gusto that one cannot help rooting for him to succeed with LaLa.
In the end, The Last Night of Ballyhoo at Granite is a lot of fun, a funny and enjoyable classic rom-com that does not skimp on serious issues against the backdrop of an historical period that we now regard with both nostalgia and foreboding. Renaissance City Theatre and its Artistic Director David Jepson deserve credit for taking the risk of bringing this play about the Jewish community of the American South to Westerly where it does not have the built-in audience that it would farther north in Rhode Island, as well as for making a sensitive effort to portray on stage a minority community and its practices that may not be personally familiar to them.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo, written by Alfred Uhry, directed by David Jepson, performed by Renaissance City Theatre at the Granite Theatre, 1 Granite St, Westerly RI. Suitable for all ages. Thru May 11. Box office: 401-596-2341 Web: granitetheatre.com/2018/10/30/last-night-of-ballyhoo