The Last Night of Ballyhoo
Runs through Sept. 28, 8 p.m. Thurs.-Sat., 4 p.m. Sun. Regularly priced tickets start at $28. Straz Center’s Shimberg Playhouse, Tampa, 813-229-STAR, jobsitetheater.org.
Jobsite Theater’s current production wants to be two plays, one a shallow crowd-pleaser about an endearing Jewish family in 1939 Atlanta, the other a stunningly honest analysis of self-hating American Jews who have internalized the anti-Semitism of their milieu and who have even found other Jews to despise and discriminate against. It would be convenient if I could say that one or the other play ultimately predominates, but the fact is that author Alfred Uhry insists on having it both ways with The Last Night of Ballyhoo: Just when you think you’ve wandered into a theatrical sitcom, he floors you with his raw authenticity; and once you’ve convinced yourself of Ballyhoo’s range and importance, he throws in a few cheap yuks and begs to be your lapdog.
Fortunately, the acting is so often superb, you can forget the play’s schizophrenia and just delight in its well-played characters. Which is all a way of saying, Ballyhoo is mostly worth your attention. Just fasten your seatbelt, ‘cause you’ll be lurching from mood to mood.
Now, about that word “Ballyhoo”: it’s a festival and dance that Atlanta’s Jews look forward to every year, and the first dramatic question that Uhry raises is, who, if anyone, will invite Lala Levy? Time’s running short, and the only guy still available is good old Peachy Weil, a jokester whose family is just tony enough for Lala’s status-conscious mother. But Peachy has made no move so far on the Gone With the Wind-obsessed Lala, and it looks like her abortive effort to matriculate at the University of Michigan is about to be followed by a dreary life as Atlanta’s most narcissistic young spinster.
Enter Uncle Adolph and Adolph’s new hire, Joe Farkas. Unlike his boss and his boss’s family, Joe’s descended from East European Jews, which means he may not be good enough for the assimilated German Jews of Adolph’s extended family. Still, Lala doesn’t mind: within minutes of their meeting, she comes on to Joe unashamedly (a possible Ballyhoo savior!). Joe’s interests, however, tend toward Lala’s cousin Sunny Freitag, who goes to Wellesley, reads Upton Sinclair, and looks more Nordic than Semitic. The course of true love never did run smooth: coming from Brooklyn, Joe is unused to his Christianized new friends, who don’t know what Pesach is, don’t speak a word of Yiddish, and certainly don’t see anything wrong with their annual Christmas Tree. And in fact it’s not very long before Joe feels insulted by his blonde love interest, not to mention the crowd she runs in. As Joe confronts his Jewish Question and Lala campaigns for her rights as the nexts Scarlett O’Hara, the play ambles to some dramatic, if not always convincing, climaxes.
But if there’s a division at the heart of Ballyhoo’s script, there’s nothing but unity in the strong cast. Nathan Jokela as Joe Farkas has to take the honors as first among equals, turning in a performance so completely persuasive, I can hardly believe any “acting” was involved. But Ami Sallee as Boo Levy is also terrific: she’s the kind of mother whose work never ends, who now finds it necessary to solve her daughter’s romantic problems, and who no doubt will be applying herself to her grandchildren’s toilet training in just a few short years. Emily Belvo as Sunny is winningly radiant: her reticence, her earnestness, her vulnerability shine forth at every lovely moment, so that we know her as fully by her silences as by her conversation.
Then there’s the hilariously spot-on performance of Jordan Foote as Peachy Weil, the wonderfully insipid man of Lala’s romantic dreams, a character so intensely silly, he approaches the mythic. Ned Averill-Snell continues his decades-long campaign of winning Bay area hearts and minds as the lovable Adolph Freitag, and Katie Castonguay capably runs the gamut of brattish emotions as she strives gamely for satisfaction in a Tara all her own. Finally, Suzy Devore does a fine job in the somewhat underwritten part of Sunny’s mother Reba. Gavin Hawk’s direction is impeccable, and though Brian Smallheer’s living room set isn’t very interesting, Beth Tepe-Robertson’s costumes — topped by Lala’s ostentatious evening dress — are always well-conceived.
Can this house divided stand? Not very sturdily: the sitcom half and the serious half of Ballyhoo never really fit together, and it’s dispiriting to realize that Uhry is hedging his bets. Still, there’s half of a searching play here, along with a wide swath of fine performances. So yes, Ballyhoo is riven by incompatible intentions. But it’s pleasing nonetheless. I’m glad to have seen it.