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The Last Night of Ballyhoo
Theater Review by Steven Leigh Morris, LA Weekly

If getting the most out of the least is any indicator, Alfred Uhry is the most successful playwright in American history. With only two full-length plays (Driving Miss Daisy and The Last Night of Ballyhoo), he has garnered awards from the American Theater Critics Association and the Drama League, two Outer Critics Circle awards, a Tony, an Oscar and a Pulitzer Prize. This would be even more impressive if either play were particularly good.

For Ballyhoo, as for Daisy, Uhry taps his background of growing up Jewish in the deep South. His social observation of Jewish self-hatred and internecine bigotry - the German Jews look down their noses at their Eastern European counterparts -gives Ballyhoo its exotic appeal, and if cultural anthropology and craftsmanship in themselves constituted a play, Ballyhoo would have deserved its Tony. But a play is also a song, and Uhry strays out of tune. He's all Southern cadence, but without the lilt.

Ballyhoo compares itself, self-consciously, to The Glass Menagerie, but Uhry just isn't in Tennessee Williams' league. Rather, he's the heir apparent to William Inge, a far more workmanlike playwright.

Most of Ballyhoo is set in 1939 Atlanta, in the home of Adolph Freitag (Peter Michael Goetz), an affluent businessman who has become the world-weary patriarch of his Jewish clan, and who lives with a pair of widowed sisters (Rhea Perlman and Harriet Harris), one of whom was married to his brother. Each of the sisters has a daughter, and the drama centers on the rivalry between these two young cousins.

Part of the play's point is how dilettante Lala (svelte Perrey Reeves), a college dropout, feels she's not beautiful because of her Semitic facial features, when it's evident that her real problem is emotional instability. Meanwhile, her studious blond beauty of a cousin, Sunny (Rebecca Gayheart), is just back from Wellesley College, where she's doing just fine, thank you very much. While Sunny reads Upton Sinclair in her spare time, Lala frets about the big annual dance - the Ballyhoo - and how to find a suitable date.

By the way, there's a war on in Europe.

The central problem for Lala and her mom, Boo, is that "Lala is the only girl in her crowd not married." Enter Joe Farkas (Mark Kassen), a dashing salesman (or should that be "gentleman caller"?) down from New York, trying to learn Southern ways. One scene has two couples waltzing in the home, just before leaving for the Ballyhoo - Lala dressed in a lavish debutante's gown, Joe dancing with Sunny. Clumsy Joe spins into Lala, accidentally tearing her dress. Lala gasps. All stop - as though Joe has just broken the horn off Laura's glass unicorn! It's really the same scene, or at least the same tone. But neither the symbols nor the dialogue has Williams' precision.

In one of Menagerie's climactic scenes, Laura's brother, Tom, goes after their mother, calling her a witch; with the right actors, it can have the horrifying, cathartic force of a Greek tragedy. Uhry tries for similar effect, with Lala confronting Sunny over her looks and her advantages, screaming, "You had yours and you wanted mine!" Here, though, the outburst is an embarrassing and trite display of family rivalry. The actors are not to blame for this; the cast is first-rate, under Ron Lagomarsino's modulated direction. It's just that where Williams wrote poetry, Uhry writes talk.

And yet, Ballyhoo and The Glass Menagerie are both about the condition of being an outsider, and about the cruelties inflicted by insiders. This, of course, is Ballyhoo's most salient link to that war across the Atlantic.

The production is ornate in a traditionally opulent way, the Gothic arches of John Lee Beatty's rust-toned palatial set color-coordinated with Jane Greenwood's period costumes. This family has so much taste, their clothes match the walls. Perhaps it's to compensate for their feelings of having no class, and such a flimsy connection to history.
 

Copyright 2001, LA Weekly
Reprinted with Permission 
The Last Night of Ballyhoo at the Colony Theatre