Sunday, March 6, 2016

The Last Night of Ballyhoo

Southern Comfort Shabbos
by Michael Dresdner

    L to R: Steven Walker, Stacie Hart                 All photos by Dennis K Photography

Set in Atlanta at Christmastime in 1939, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, which opened Friday at Tacoma Little Theatre, opens a window into the world of well-off Jews in the deep south. Presented as an unabashed comedy, it abounds with funny, quirky, and thoroughly entertaining characters blessed with equally funny dialog. Director Jeff Kingsbury kept the pace apace, and chose an extremely talented ensemble cast that made the play delightful to watch.

Ballyhoo is a yearly festival for southern Jews, and culminates with a socially imperative dance on the last night. It’s a time when a young single Jewish woman wants to appear in the right dress and on the right squire’s arm.  Much of the action in the play revolves around the two young women in the Freitag/Levy household , a grand home in a wealthy section of Atlanta, and how these two very different characters approach the problem of whose arm to grace at the Ballyhoo dance.

    L to R: Jill Heinecke, Russ Holm  

Adolph Freitag (Russ Holm) is the patriarch of a household that consists of his widowed sister, Boo Levy (Stacie Hart) and her daughter Lala Levy (Katelyn Hoffman), and his widowed sister-in-law, Reba Freitag (Kim Holm) and her daughter Sunny Freitag (Jill Heinecke). Where Sunny is a smart and somewhat reserved Wellesley student more interested in her mind than her dates, her cousin Lala is a would-be social butterfly, consumed with the new Gone With The Wind movie and focused largely on snagging just the right beau.

   L to R: Steven Walker, Kelly Mackay 

Sunny rather inadvertently lands Joe Farkas (Kelly Mackay), a New York Jew who Adolph hired and brought south. The problem is that Joe, a “real” Jew, is baffled and rather disappointed with Sunny’s lack of religious awareness.

   L to R: Jill Heinecke, Kelly Mackay 

Meanwhile, the somewhat envious Lala sets her sights on Peachy Weil (Steven Walker.) Peachy is the one character on stage that is almost a flat-out comic stereotype, a wealthy, garishly dressed, loud braying ass of an entitled young man, one of the “right” sort of Southern Jews. While this can be called scenery chewing in some situations, here it works perfectly as a single glaring counterpoint, in part because Walker crafted the character so adroitly.

These Atlanta Jews are what my mother would have called “g’ligum layd’n din Jews” (ersatz  or imitation Jews), and what Hillel calls “bagel and lox Jews,” or Jews in name only. Almost completely clueless about religious rituals, holidays, or even common Yiddish or Hebrew words and phrases, they are seen in the opening scene decorating their annual Christmas tree.

   L to R: Kelly Mackay, Katelyn Hoffman  

What they are aware of is that in spite of their wealth, they are at times discriminated against. Strangely, though, they belong to a subset of European Jews who in turn discriminate against another subset of European Jews, those who come from east of the Elba river. Bear in mind this is 1939, and that sort of local origin discrimination went away, for the most part, after the Holocaust was revealed.

New Yorker Joe Farkas is one of the “wrong” type of Jews, yet on another level, he looks down on Sunny’s lack of her own religious awareness. But don’t worry. It’s a comedy, so it will all work out fine in the end.

   L to R: Jill Heinecke, Russ Holm 

Every member of this superb ensemble cast deserves praise, for convincingly consistent southern accents and beautifully crafted characters, but allow me to spotlight just a few. Russ Holm creates a wide ranging, rubber faced, picaresque Adolph whose perfect comedic timing and offhand droll responses, both physically and vocally, are simply flawless. But after Sunny asks if he’s ever been in love, he changes the pace convincingly with a shy, bittersweet story of an unrequited crush from afar.

   Kim Holm 

Kim Holm (coincidence?) does an equally fine job creating a comical and thoroughly endearing Reba, a chirpy, well-intentioned mix of motherly wisdom and genteel Southern cluelessness. I just loved watching her. In perfect counterbalance was the more serious and focused Boo (Stacie Hart) who is all about steering and protecting her daughter, whatever course that may take.

      L to R: Stacie Hart, Katelyn Hoffman    

All this is played out on a beautifully elegant set by Blake York, painted by Jen York, and in a huge array of superb costumes by Michele Graves, from Lala’s bizarre Tara dress and Peachy’s shocking argyle, to the more sedate and apt outfits befitting the station and nature of the others. Lighting by Niclas Olson was excellent (I especially liked the car headlights behind the oriel windows), and sound was jointly by Chris Serface and stage manager Nena Curley. 

As thoroughly impressive as this was, there are just a couple of minor points that bothered me, and one was Joe Farkas. Don’t get me wrong; Mackay was charming, delightful, and perfect for the role. It’s just that a New York Jew familiar with Yiddish speaks a certain way and with a rhythm that goes beyond mere pronunciation. At one point he says to Sunny “a shaynum dank dir im pupik,” (thanks for nothing) and I had trouble understanding what he was saying even though I grew up hearing that phrase, and a whole lot of other Yiddish as well.

Again, it’s a minor point, but while I am on minor points, the curtain call was, well, overdone, especially for what really is an ensemble offering. It had me yearning for something shorter and simpler, and I’m undoubtedly not alone in this. In my experience, most actors despise elaborate curtain calls, but it seems many directors love them. Ok, enough whining about minutiae.

Here’s what you really need to know. This is a charming, very funny, fast-paced, and thoroughly engaging play chock full of some of the finest actors you’ll see plying their craft. There was not a single weak link in the entire cast, and their skill and synergy turned an excellent, lighthearted slice-of-life ensemble offering into an absolute must see play.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo
March 4 to March 20,2016
Tacoma Little Theatre

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