Everything falls into place in the beautifully appointed, uppercrust Atlanta home of Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” right down to the Jewish household’s traditional Christmas tree. And the same can be said for this winning new play and the meticulous production it’s been given. With its wonderfully crafted script, equally fine direction and an ensemble so good it holds its own in the towering presence of star Dana Ivey, “Ballyhoo” looks a shoo-in for a slew of Tony Award nominations come springtime.
Re-assembling the “Driving Miss Daisy” crew — Uhry, Ivey and director Ron Lagomarsino — “Ballyhoo” inflicts no sophomore curse on the team, and indeed is a more than worthy successor to the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Daisy.” Using the manner and technique of boulevard comedy as its backdrop, “Ballyhoo” addresses some weighty issues with the same combination of ease and purpose that marked Wendy Wasserstein’s “The Sisters Rosensweig” some seasons back.
In fact, “Ballyhoo” and “Rosensweig” share more than style: Both plays deal with issues of self-hatred and denial within their respective Jewish upper-class milieus. But where Wasserstein focused on expatriate New Yorkers, Uhry returns to the Atlanta that inspires his deliciously comic voice.
The year is 1939, but for Uhry’s well-off Jewish assimilationists, far-off reports of Germany’s threat take a distant backseat to Ballyhoo, Atlanta’s annual holiday — Christmas holiday — ball for the young Jewish society set. In a household where the only concession to its own Judaism is a debate over whether to place a star atop the Christmas tree, Ballyhoo, with its careful appropriation of all things genteel and gentile, is a major event.
The only Jews in a posh Atlanta neighborhood, Adolph Freitag (Terry Beaver), his widowed sister Boo (short for Beulah) Levy (Ivey) and widowed sister-in-law Reba Freitag (Celia Weston) share a lovely home bought and paid for by the family’s bedding business and lifetimes spent adopting the cultural persona of Southern Protestant society. Lala Levy (Jessica Hecht), Boo’s 22-year-old daughter, unable to fit in at college, has returned home, where even there her dark, kinky hair and loud manner peg her as stereotypically — and conspicuously — Jewish.
Lala, obsessed with the Atlanta premiere of “Gone With the Wind,” indulges in pipe dreams of becoming a famous novelist and heading to Hollywood, while mother Boo simply dreams of procuring Lala a date for Ballyhoo. “This might be her last chance,” Boo frets, playing a crotchety Amanda Wingfield to Lala’s gauche Laura.
Home for the holidays — she’s on break from Wesleyan College — is Sunny Freitag (Arija Bareikis), Reba’s blond, Aryan-featured daughter, as absent of Jewish markers as Lala is not. A long rivalry between the two girls comes to a head with the introduction of the play’s gentleman caller, Joe Farkas (Paul Rudd), a handsome young Brooklyn Jew who’s a favored employee of Adolph’s at the bedding plant. “Nice Hanukkah bush,” Joe says upon seeing the family Christmas tree, and culture clash is imminent.
So is romantic clash, of course. Proving opposites attract, Joe and Sunny fall for each other, while Lala is left with an insensitive lout of a college boy, Peachy Weil (Stephen Largay). Ballyhoo comes and goes, but not without the confrontations that have been simmering throughout the play.
What doesn’t come across in synopsis is the play’s abundant humor. Uhry’s dialogue is packed with laughs, and the byplay between Ivey and Weston is wonderfully performed. As the rather flaky Reba, Weston handles non sequiturs with a deadpan style perfectly suited to Ivey’s razor-sharp sarcasm. Beaver, as the man of the household (which is not to say head of the household), gives a nicely textured performance in a role that could have been little more than a bystander.
The younger cast members hold their own, with Hecht making a strong impression as the gawky, silly Lala. Rudd does fine by the likably no-nonsense Joe, Largay is appropriately unlikable as the oafish suitor, and Bareikis brings out the humanity that Uhry has subtly written into the WASP-wannabe Sunny.
Director Lagomarsino orchestrates all the players with dexterity, just as he does the play’s alternating movements of comedy and pathos. John Lee Beatty’s parlor-room set and Jane Greenwood’s costumes couldn’t be more efficient or pretty, and, in the case of one of Greenwood’s dresses, a better punchline.
Play ends on a lovely, misty note: A brief coda could be interpreted either as real or simply imagined by Sunny. As the world and their isolated corner of it are about to change forever, these characters will need all the grace and strength they can find, and Uhry offers it gladly.