This is going to be one of those ornery minority opinions. After all, Alfred Uhry won a Pulitzer for his first play, “Driving Miss Daisy,” and a Tony for his second, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo.”
The production of “Ballyhoo” at the Canon Theatre is not the problem, even if the cast under Ron Lagomarsino’s direction is uneven and those Atlanta accents are all over the place. Clark Gable was right: If you can’t handle a Southern accent, then don’t do a Southern accent.
“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” begins on that big day, in 1939, when Gable and Vivien Leigh came to Atlanta for the premiere of “Gone With the Wind.” What would playwrights do without that wonderful year 1939, with “GWTW” opening and talk of Hitler in the air? As all-purpose years go, it’s right up there with 1929.
When “Ballyhoo” opens, the Freitag family is having a little problem decorating their Christmas tree. Daughter Lala (Perrey Reeves) wants to put a big shiny star up on top, but her mother, Boo (Rhea Perlman), reminds the girl, “Jewish Christmas trees don’t have stars.” Boo is the sensible one, albeit bitter to the core. Sister-in-law Reba (Harriet Harris) is the tinsel expert. She knows that tinsel goes on one at a time, and if you hold a strand up in the air and then blow, it creates a real natural effect. Boo just throws the tinsel on in clumps. Between tinsel-blowing, Reba knits a sweater for her daughter, Sunny (Rebecca Gayheart), who is away at college but will return for the holiday — Christmas, not Hanukkah. Reba is the card of the group, and since she’s a borderline moron, gets all the laughs. Those that remain belong to klutzy Lala, who merely flunked out of college because she’s so dim. Boo’s unmarried brother, Adolph (Peter Michael Goetz), is the intellectual in the family. He reads the newspaper, which is how we know about Hitler and, in his opinion, the difference between German Jews, Russian Jews and Czechoslovakian Jews. Whichever group it is, the Freitags think they belong to the good-looking one.
Other than the looks department, however, they don’t really know they’re Jews. Which is why Joe (Mark Kassen), a New York Jew, falls in love with the blond, beautiful Sunny (she eventually makes it home from college) and teaches everybody about their heritage. Something odd, though, happens: When it comes to asking a girl to the big Ballyhoo dance, Joe goes right for the conventionally beautiful Sunny and rejects the “Jewish looking” (Uhry’s words) Lala. The play does not examine this decision.
What can you expect from a playwright, who, in his “Miss Daisy,” found some wonderful character arc as an old white woman who went from refusing her black chauffeur to “pass water” to letting him spoon-feed her pie? In “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” the Freitag family goes from decorating a Christmas to pronouncing “shabat shalom.”
Perlman’s nasty Boo is a needed respite among all this sentimental goo. Also fine is Mark Kassen’s Joe, who, fortunately, is not straddled with one of the production’s all-purpose Southern accents. He and the understated Gayheart have a lovely moment on the couch where they first fall in love. The play’s low point comes later when Goetz has to recall his one love in life: a young woman he used to see on a trolley years ago but never spoke to. This worked in “Citizen Kane,” but between Robert Redford’s speech in “Indecent Proposal” and this one in “Ballyhoo,” something has been lost in the digression.
As the evening’s dimwit clowns, Harris and Reeves seemed especially popular with the audience at the Canon Theatre. Their characters belong to that long and not fine tradition in the American theater wherein we are called upon to laugh at mentally deficient eccentrics. The production at the Canon deserves better.
Lee Beatty has designed an extremely detailed and lived-in living room set.