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Stage Review: Sniffles at 'Ballyhoo'

Broadway comedy is still moving at Mountain Playhouse

Friday, September 15, 2000

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" was a surprising charmer on Broadway a couple of years ago, as well as (for a nonmusical) a modest success at the box office. But as I said when I first reviewed it, the real future of the comedy set in a wealthy Jewish family in 1939 Atlanta would be in every straw hat and community theater in the country.

'The Last Night Of Ballyhoo'

WHERE: Mountain Playhouse, Route 985, Jennerstown.

WHEN: Fri. 2 and 8 p.m.; Sat. 8 p.m.; Sun. 3 p.m.

TICKETS: 814-629-9201


That future is now.

The Pittsburgh Public Theater passed on what would have seemed to me an attractive property for them to premiere here, so that professional Pittsburgh premiere fell to Scott DeNier's Starlight Productions last fall, with Mary Rawson and Richard Rauh leading the ensemble cast of seven. Then it was staged last month by St. Vincent Summer Theater, featuring Shirley Tannenbaum, and now it is finishing a short run at the Mountain Playhouse, led by comedian Barbara Russell and Jennerstown veteran David Garwood.

So "Ballyhoo" has just about finished its professional theater rounds, and, indeed, it soon moves to the next level, opening at Little Lake Theater in November (good timing for a play with a special kind of Christmas theme). I don't think it'll make it into high schools, because the theme of ethnic bias will prove too strong, but you'll eventually be able to see it almost everywhere else.

But it makes sense to see it done professionally if you can, and these last few days at Jennerstown may be the best opportunity hereabouts for a while. This version is very capable, and although it makes a rather slow start, it eventually scores the necessary comic and (judging by the dampness in my own eyes) emotional points, as well as registering at least some of playwright Alfred Uhry's darker purpose.

Indeed, judging by the sniffles around me, many in the large matinee audience last Sunday were moved more deeply than they probably expected on a sunny afternoon in the lovely old gristmill theater.

At heart, "Ballyhoo" is a traditional family comedy, in which the older generation (Adolph Freitag, his sister Boo and sister-in-law Reba) worries about the future of the younger (cousins Lala and Sunny). The focal event is Ballyhoo, a series of parties held in Atlanta at Christmas time for well-to-do Southern Jewish society, culminating on the last night in a big ball that functions also as marriage market and societal marker. So who is going to take klutzy Lala to the ball? And will talented, pretty Sunny find happiness with the nice young man from Brooklyn?

And so on. The heartwarming comedy is all very well, but what gives "Ballyhoo" distinction is its undercurrent of prejudice -- Christians against Jews, both against blacks and, perhaps most revelatory, German Jews against Eastern European. Joe, the Brooklynite, can't even believe the Freitags are really Jews, so thoroughly do they seem to him to have assimilated, but they know better. Remember that 1939 is just a couple of decades after the lynching of the Atlanta Jew, Leo Frank, and right on the threshold of the Holocaust, and you get a sense of the stakes -- even though the Freitag family's life is overtly touched by neither so much as by the premiere of "Gone with the Wind," then captivating Atlanta's attention. All that Civil War history is another way to question the place of Jews in Atlantan (and American) culture.

Playwright Uhry has memorably made all this his special preserve in "Driving Miss Daisy" and the musical "Parade." But his deepest skill in "Ballyhoo" goes into savoring the emotional currents within the family. Boo, for example, is comically bossy, but we understand the frustration that drives her. Adolph seems put-upon, but there's a complexity of hopes and regrets in him, too.

For my taste, Guy Stroman's direction leans too much toward the comedy, especially early in the play, shorting its emotional complexity. You have to deny an audience some easy laughs in order to open their eyes to what else is going on. But as I say, the balance seems to right itself in the long run.

Old pros Russell and Garwood certainly harvest their comic possibilities. But in their telling small scene in Act 2, when he finally looks at her and says her name, we see the complex balance between them. Such moments are essential to justify the unexpected warmth of the play's final scene.

Emily Elsener and Stephanie Lynge provide delicious contrast as Lala and Sunny, as do Chan Harris and Robert Baldwin as Joe and Peachy. I'd like to feel more of Joe's anger, though. Janet Dickinson is a surprisingly uneccentric Reba, and the accents are all over the place (Garwood doesn't seem to have much at all).

But that's nit-picking. When Boo says, "We are not weak people," it resonates deeply. The (momentarily?) happy ending of the play is earned.

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