A Disappointing The Last Night of the Ballyhoo
This was my second time to see the Alfred Uhry comedy Last Night of Ballyhoo, this time at TheatreWorks. I had seen the Los Angeles production in November 1998 at the Canon Theatre and I thought it was a very charming, soft focus period piece. The cast of that production included Rhea Perlman, Peter Michael Gotez and an up and coming actor named Mark Kassen. I don’t know what happen to Mr. Kassen after he played the role of Joe. He played the role like John Garfield and he was superb.
I was very disappointed with this production at TheatreWorks, both in the direction and the acting. In the Los Angeles production the characters were Jewish with great accents. They played down the Southern accents which was fine since generally you don’t find those heavy southern accents in big cities like Atlanta.
The cast of TheatreWorks were more like characters then human beings. Boo, the Rhea Perlman role, was more Italian then Jewish. Lala Levy tried to be too much of Scarlet O’Hara in this play.
The play took place in 1939 in Atlanta. The world premier of Gone With the Wind was about to take place and it was just a few days before Christmas and the Ballyhoo, a cotillion for Jewish society. The Levy family were well to do German Jews who were more southern than Jewish. They even have a Christmas tree in their living room. Their idea of being Jewish was not putting up a star on top of their Christmas tree. Boo even looked down upon on the other kinds of Jews, like those families that came from Eastern Europe. Boo prided herself that she had assimilated the family into the Christian world. In the Los Angeles this was very evident, but in the TheatreWorks production it just did not come across to the audience.
The plot centers around Lala, who was going to write a great novel of the South and was crazy for Gone With the Wind, and Sunny Freitag, who has just left an Ivy League girls school and looks and acts more Christian then Jewish. Both of the girls were going to the last night of the Ballyhoo. Joe, new salesman working for Lala's Uncle Adolph, falls for Sunny, much to the dismay of Lala who had openly flirted with him. Also involved in this plot are the light headed sister-in-law Reba and a real obnoxious Peachy Weil whose Jewish family has been in Louisiana for 150 years. It all comes right in the end.
Some of the scenes are well timed and well played. The little scene in the second act between the uncle and niece is a little gem of acting and direction. The arrival of the new employee of Adolph should have been play’s strongest narrative engine, however it was not. Joe came from New York where he had been a great salesman. The actor Brian Herndon played him like a typical middle class Jewish person with no personality. It was also unknown why Adolph readily accepted Joe as an employee and why he actively encouraged Joe’s wooing of Sunny. Many questions were unfulfilled in this production.
The social aspects of the Jews from the one side of the Elbe against Jews from the other side was drowned out by a mushy moments. This was sad since this fact was very prominent in the Los Angeles production.
Most of the actors just recited their lines with little or no convection. The timing was completely off and Sheila O’Neill Ellis, a very talented actress, just could not come off as the Jewish mother. David Silberman, as Adolph, was lost in the role as the head male of the household. Noel Wood became too much as the loud, overbearing Peachy Weil. He overstayed his welcome on the stage. Nancy Madden, as the sister in law, just recited her lines. Jessa Brie Berkner, who is also a very talented actress, was just a little too old to play the role of Sunny.
The production runs through Feb 11 at the Mountain View Performing Arts Center Tuesdays through Sundays. Tickets are $20 to $38.
Opening on March 7 will be A.R. Gurney’s Far East.
Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area