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Theater Review: The Last Night of Ballyhoo

By Julie Stern, Newtown Bee


One of the most insidious evils of racial and ethnic discrimination is the way that those people being excluded start to buy into the prejudices of the dominant class, feeling shame and self hatred for those physical and cultural traits that characterize their own group. A classic example of this was the "brown paper bag test" used as a criterion for admission to prestigious fraternities and sororities at historically black colleges: would-be pledges had to demonstrate that their skin color was no darker than a paper grocery bag. It was in reaction to this ideal of looking "more white"  that the "Black is Beautiful" movement of the sixties sought to make African-Americans comfortable with, and proud of,  their dark skin and kinky hair.

Playwright Alfred Uhry- best known as the author of Driving Miss Daisy-  tackles this same issue as it affected the Atlanta Jewish community that was his native habitat. Back in 1939 when Ballyhoo takes place, (before the revelations of the Holocaust rendered it Politically Incorrect ) anti-semitism was a fact of life in America. It was taken for granted that Jews would be denied entry to a wide range of institutions, ranging from country clubs and fraternities to hotels and hospitals.

Jews with money responded by creating their own parallel world of fraternities and sororities their children could belong to, country clubs where they could swim and play golf, and hospitals with names like Mount Sinai or Beth Israel, where Jewish doctors would have admitting privileges.

Sadly, however, the same snobbery that led some African-Americans to spurn those with darker skin, also divided Jewish Americans. In this case it was the distinction drawn between German Jews- who had emigrated to America early enough in the nineteenth century to have become "assimilated" and Eastern European Jews- mainly from Poland and Russia- who came later, tended to be poorer, and more clearly distinct from their Christian neighbors by virtue of their accents, their appearance, and their religious orthodoxy.

If it is true that "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery," the wealthy Jews whom Uhry chronicled in his plays were definitely flattering the "fine patrician families" of the south. Having suffered the humiliation of being excluded from the local club, they created their own clubs- and then restricted membership to "their own kind." That is, Jews of eastern European origin- referred to as "the other"- were not welcome. They were an embarrassment to the group who prided themselves on their "long American heritage" and their wasp coloration, who even if they could not be gentile,  still strove to be genteel. "Those people should stick with their own kind" was their attitude. 

In "Ballyhoo" Uhry skewers this cultural snobbery with humor and affection, The title refers to the biggest social event of the year for the Jewish community: timed to compete with the Christmas season, it consists of a week of picnics and parties, culminating in a Ball on December 26 at the elegant  Standard Club.

In the female centered Freitag household on Habersham Road, where the kind-hearted, well-to-do middle-aged bachelor, Adolph Freitag supports the rest of his family- two widows and their respective daughters,  Ballyhoo looms like a senior prom on steroids.

Adolph's shrewish sister , Boo, worried that her daughter Lala is twenty-two and still unmarried, laments that she has no date for the dance, which is less than two weeks away. Lala, a college dropout, who quit the University of Michigan when she was rejected by the most important Jewish sorority, is a ditz, currently absorbed in Scarlett O"hara fantasies inspired by the imminent premiere of Gone With The Wind. Her mother frantically pushes her to telephone an eligible young man from Lake Charles, and use her charms to get him to invite her to Ballyhoo.

His sister-in-law, Reba , could care less. A placid soul, her biggest concern is that she be able to finish knitting the sweaters she is working on, in time to give them as Christmas presents. Her daughter, Sunny, is in college at Wellesley, and will soon be home for the holidays. 

Into this mix comes Joe Farkas, a new employee whom Adolph has invited home for dinner. Young, unmarried, and ambitious, he seems like an eligible candidate, but: he speaks with a Brooklyn accent; his parents came over on the boat, and he is unashamedly Jewish…

His interactions with the Freitag family make for a comedy of manners; his meeting with Lala's cousin, the naïve but intellectual  Sunny, leads to romance, and above it all, the shadow of events looming in Europe give deeply ironic significance to the aspirations of all the characters in the play.

Under the able direction of Chesley Plemmons, the cast handle their roles with deft assurance. Stephen Ross wins our sympathy as the long suffering Adolph, hiding behind his newspaper to escape his sister's endless tirades. Susan Abrams as Boo and Joan S. Wyner as Reba play very different types of mothers, making it easy to see why he might be inclined to play favorites, between Erin Shaughnessy as the air-headed Lala, and Carey Van Hollen as the more serious Sunny. 

As Joe Farkas, Charles Roth comes across as a manly and sensible suitor, and I especially liked Samuel Everett, as the irrepressibly smug and sassy Peachy Weil, the young man from Lake Charles.

This was a very interesting play, well done by the Theatreworks company, as usual. If the character of Boo was a bit of an overdrawn stereotype, that was the work of the playwright, not the performer.

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