Saturday, April 9, 2011

Hip Hooray and Ballyhoo

D.A. Gravel, Mark Bogdanos, Anneli Curnock

The Last Night of Ballyhoo is an odd title for a play. And the play, presented by the Hudson Theatre Ensemble tonight, next Friday and Saturday nights, doesn't disappoint. It introduces us to a segment of the population we might never have met, and over the course of the evening, we learn to love them.

I grew up in the South and knew very few Jews in the region. Playwright (Driving Miss Daisy) Alfred Uhry, on the other hand, knew them first hand and, luckily for us, tells their stories in touching and comic ways. Seeing it is an enlightening and heartwarming experience.

The play opens in an old-fashioned, gently theatrical way. It is Christmas in Atlanta, the season of the very year Gone With the Wind opened at Loew's Grand on Peachtree Street. I lived in Atlanta in the 1960s and know very well the devotion that city has had to that book and movie over the years. It is the perfect moment in time for a play about Atlanta's Jewish population, working hard to assimilate just as Hitler is gathering forces to annihilate their relatives in Europe. Lala Levy, charmingly portrayed by Anneli Curnock, is decorating a Christmas tree, as her mother explains that Christmas is a time for decorations and has nothing to do with the birth of any messiah. Lala is a piece of work--defensive, angry, and more than a little bit eccentric. Her mother is concerned that she'll never find a husband, and that a husband with good Jewish bloodlines is her only hope.

The action moves slowly, just like an old-fashioned, gently theatrical play should. One by one we meet the family--Uncle Adolph, the family patriarch, his other niece Sunny, who doesn't look Jewish; her pleasantly dim mother (played winningly by Hudson favorite Florence Pape) and the young men who come to call. By the end of the first act we have real drama, as we have learned the conflicts that hold this little family unit together and pull them apart at the same time. The two cousins have a very moving confrontation which spells out one of the basic themes of play--a kind of sibling rivalry and family feud that lies just under the surface.

The main theme, however, is heightened by the entrance into this world of a young Jewish man from Brooklyn who comes to work for Uncle Adolph. He is immediately turned off by the pushy Lala, and falls for Sunny, who is intrigued by his exotic Jewishness. It is through him that we contrast the ways Jews lived in the South at that time, setting up social strata similar to that which they saw all around them in the WASP world, and the European Jews of New York, who were so proud of the Jewishness of celebrities who for the most part were in the closet, so to speak.

What's the ballyhoo? Apparently there is a big event, "The Ballyhoo," sort of a coming-out party for eligible young Jews all over the South, who come to Atlanta every year to meet each other. I never heard of it, but that doesn't mean it doesn't exist. It is the logical place for these characters to get together.

As usual for the Hudson Theatre Ensemble, a phantom director has assembled a first rate cast and guided them to a production that is interesting as well as entertaining. Mark Bogdanos is outstanding--funny and lovable, but totally convincing as the head of the family company. I even believed him when he snoozed. D.A. Gravel is touching as the frustrated and sometimes obnoxious sister, left to live her life through her very unsatisfying daughter. Lauren Hayden is talented as well as beautiful. We root for her and her young man as soon as we see them together for the first time. Steve Yates plays the visitor from a different world with vitality and appeal, and Ross Weinberg makes us like a schmoe who thinks he's smart--and leaves us with the one unforgettable line of the evening.

The matinee performance tomorrow at 3 is sold out, but who knows? There might be standing room. Otherwise, don't miss this one--at the Hudson School Performance Space at Park and 6th, 8 P.M. tonight and next weekend.

Photo by John Crittenden