The Last Night of Ballyhoo, At Last
Damon Bonetti, Lauren Milberger, Kate Konigisor and David Edwards
A lot of people collect things. There’s a particular kind of collector called a “completist.” You might have a small collection of say, Star Wars toys, but a completist would try to acquire one of every Star Wars toy ever made. It’s an expensive and arduous proposition, of course.
I doubt anyone collects my Surflight reviews, other than perhaps whoever keeps the scrapbook at the theater. But if there are any, they were no doubt frustrated that I skipped the penultimate show of the fall 2006 season, The Last Night of Ballyhoo. (I always skip the Christmas show.) I saw the show and never completed the review for reasons not important to explain here. But you know something? It’s been bugging me. Like the unnamed narrator of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart I’ve been... well I haven’t been driven mad but it has been bugging me. Happily, completing my fall collection is free for both of us, so to all you completists out there, here are my thoughts on The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo is an enjoyable seriocomic send-off that should nicely hold me over until next season. It’s December 1939 and while Adolf Hitler is consolidating his takeover of Poland the upscale German-Jewish community of Atlanta has more quotidian concerns. Gone with the Wind is opening downtown. Can a nice Jewish girl get a date for the premiere? (Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh will be there!) More importantly, can she get a date for Ballyhoo? That’s the annual gala the Jewish community stages each year as an answer to the Christian community’s cotillions.
The nice Jewish girl is Lala Levy (Lauren Milberger). She and her mother Boo (Kate Konigisor) live with Boo’s sister, Reba (Jennifer Winegardner) and Reba’s daughter Sunny (Charlotte Northeast), who’s coming home from Wellesley for the holidays. Uncle Adolph (David Edwards) heads the household but wasn’t married to either sister (his brother was). He’s too easygoing to have married into this family.
This is a Jewish home of Christmas trees and Christmas cards, not menorahs and mezuzahs. This too-complete assimilation bugs Joe Farkas (Damon Bonetti) the Yankee whom Adolph imports from New York to work for him. The other import is the too-full-of-himself Peachy Weill (Lance Olds) whom Boo hopes to finagle into taking Lala to Ballyhoo. But since Peachy is also a southern Jew (by way of Louisiana), he understands the game they play.
What’s the game? The German Jews of Atlanta have assimilated all too much. They even have their own homegrown brand of bigotry. They look down at their Eastern European cousins from “east of the Elba” like Joe Farkas (the “kikey ones” as Elaine Wales née Estelle Wilovsky so infamously explained to Philip Schuyler Green in Gentleman’s Agreement).
Oddly enough this tale of prejudice and pride is mostly lighthearted and always enjoyable. It won its author Alfred Uhry a Tony. It’s not a sequel to his more popular and successful Driving Miss Daisy but it treads the same turf.
I couldn’t find any flaws with any of the players, probably due to Allison Bergman's deft direction. Milberger’s histrionic Lala grated on my nerves occasionally but that’s exactly what the Jewish Scarlett O’Hara is supposed to do. I always like Konigisor’s Jewish mothers even when they’re as neurotic as Boo Levy. (Or perhaps especially when they’re as neurotic as Boo.) I imagine Uhry himself would approve of David Edwards’ laconic and relaxed Adolph.
Charlotte Northeast’s Sunny looks more shiksa than shana maidel, which makes her perfect for the super-assimilated Wellesley student she portrays. Her acting was spot on. I also liked the acting of newcomers Lance Olds and Damon Bonetti and the interaction between their paradoxically similar yet very different characters.
The portrayal I enjoyed the most however, was Jennifer Winegardner as Reba. Whenever you see an actor you can’t help thinking of his or her prior work if you’re familiar with it. That’s why film directors sometimes insist on using unknowns instead of stars for certain roles. Winegardner is not a star yet. In fact this is her first season with Surflight. Yet I’ve already seen her as a reserved upper class English wife (Dial M for Murder) and a starstruck Midwesterner bankrolling her first Broadway production (It's Only a Play). In all three very different roles Winegardner was both believable and very fun to watch.
The narrator in A Tell-Tale Heart eventually cries, “Villians, dissemble no more! I admit the deed!” and finds his resolution. You’re not villians and I’m not crazy but I gotta tell you. I feel a lot better now. See you next season.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo ran at the Surflight October 18 through October 22, 2006.