Drama dances toward the light

Review: A strong play about family relationships, `The Last Night of Ballyhoo' takes a rare look at intra-ethnic bigotry.

November 24, 1999|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" is a play about a very specific group of people in a very specific city at a very specific time in history. But like Tennessee Williams' "The Glass Menagerie," a play it resembles in several respects, "Ballyhoo" uses a world of specific details to reveal a host of universal truths.

The second play by the author of "Driving Miss Daisy," "Ballyhoo," which won the 1997 Tony Award, is receiving a beautifully staged Baltimore premiere at Everyman Theatre.

The action focuses on a wealthy, highly assimilated family of German-American Jews living in Atlanta in 1939. Hitler has just invaded Poland and Europe is about to explode, but Boo (short for Beulah) Levy's biggest worry is whether her daughter, Lala, will have a date for Ballyhoo, the formal dance that is the height of the season in German-Jewish society in Atlanta.

Like Amanda Wingfield, the mother in "The Glass Menagerie," Boo -- played with restrained intensity and unrestrained snobbery by Rosemary Knower -- is obsessed with the future of her socially ill-at-ease daughter.

Unlike the daughter in "Menagerie," however, Lala doesn't suffer from too little personality, she suffers from too much. It's a condition ably demonstrated by actress Shira Ginsburg, whose Lala is a large but fragile young woman, the sort who can chatter happily one moment and fall apart the next.

In her mind and her mother's, Lala's shortcomings are accentuated by comparison to her seemingly perfect cousin, Sunny, a junior at Wellesley. In a strong professional debut, Megan Anderson, a Towson University student, delivers a heartfelt portrayal of Sunny, as an attractive, bright-but-naive college student who exudes decency.

Sunny, Lala and their widowed mothers live with the girls' bachelor Uncle Adolph in a large, elegant home, scrupulously created on stage by set designer Daniel Ettinger. With all these extended relations under the same roof, however, Uhry's script makes the audience work unnecessarily hard at figuring out the connections between characters.

Although rivalries, old animosities and other recognizable tensions of family life surface throughout the play, the person who upsets the order of the household the most is a Jewish outsider from Brooklyn named Joe Farkas, recently hired by Adolph to work in the family bedding business.

Kyle Prue has to strain for a New York accent and mannerisms, but his Joe is a man so earnest and good, there's no question that he belongs with Sunny.

Uncle Adolph, given a warm, down-to-earth portrayal by Stan Weiman, certainly thinks so. But while Joe is Jewish, his heritage is Eastern European. In other words, he's not the right "kind," as brusque Boo Levy makes all too clear whenever Joe drops by.

Besides the theme of family, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" is a play about intra-ethnic bigotry. This shameful manifestation of self-loathing exists in many ethnic groups, and Uhry bravely exposes it in all of its hypocritical ugliness.

Because of this theme, "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," though at times drawn-out and episodic, also has plenty of hard-hitting moments. And, because of those moments, the play's coda comes across as excessively sentimental and perhaps fantastical -- impressions that would be more credible if director Vincent Lancisi toned them down.

For the most part, however, Lancisi has mounted a carefully considered production whose emotional content, which includes a good bit of humor and romance, transcends ethnic lines.

In making comparisons to "The Glass Menagerie," it's interesting to note that Williams' modern classic is the next play in Everyman's season. Seeing these two dramas back to back is sure to illuminate them both.

`The Last Night of Ballyhoo"

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, matinees at 2: 30 p.m. Sundays and Dec. 4, 11 and 18. Through Dec. 19

Tickets: $15 Call: 410-752-2208

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