Every so often (no often enough) a production all just comes together. Perfect casting, spot-on direction, meticulous design, tight pacing and the kind of effortless performance that makes the action seem both spontaneous and perfectly finished. Even better when it happens in one of the smaller, less well-funded professional houses. Best of all when it happens with an unlikely, meticulously crafted play like Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo".
Set in Atlanta's Jewish community in 1939, this is a sort of "You Can't Take It With You" style domestic comedy, but with a much greater depth and with a sharper edge. Then again, it's 1939 and the entire world was on a cutting edge. Questions about the methods and means of personal safety, about the cost of belonging to a besieged minority, and the cost of denying that inclusion, about integrity and character, were questions defining the world itself.
As much as it's concerned with the preparations of young people for the annual "Ballyhoo" ball, a premiere event for meeting the "right" sort of eligible young Jewish singles, this play is about the importance of culture, the ease with which it's forfeited for the sake of assimilation, and the ways in which we define ourselves by accepting, or denying, our heritage and our identity. At the same time that Uhry explores those issues through vivid dramatic conflict, he also draws wonderfully realized characters, and puts them in deliciously amusing situations. It's entertainment with something to say, told by characters worth knowing.
It's a clichÈ, but this really is one of those ensemble casts without a weak link. The good fortune of the casting is matched by the way the talent is used. Director Scott Nolte begins with the kind of crackling, screwball comedy style that lets us know exactly who each of these characters is, and also tells us to listen carefully to what they have to say. Nolan Palmer is wonderful as the pater-familia, Adolph Freitag, constantly bemused and beleaguered by the houseful of women surrounding him. Pam Nolte has a fine time with Mama Reba, whose distinctive way of seeing the world allows her to deliver hilarious and thoroughly unfiltered observations. She plays the role with plenty of nutty idiosyncrasy, but never becomes silly or overdone. Shellie Shulkin plays Boo Levy with a style that makes her seem quite reasonable, while actually being just as ridiculous as everyone else.
At the heart of the drama are the two young women, Lala and Sunny, and their respective beaus. Lala knows she's never going to be the first choice for anything, and Eli Katz does a fine job of making her sympathetic and comically theatrical, so her affectations of Scarlett O'Hara seem more like accents than pure absurdities. Underscoring the disadvantage of "looking Jewish" for Lala is her beautiful, blonde, Georgia Peach cousin Sunny. Sarah Lamb is fine in playing the Wellesley girl earning her way through life, not taking advantage, but clearly with advantages. When she gets to the scenes with the more traditional young man, Joe Farkas, deeply and skillfully drawn by Aaron Roos, her character grows infinitely richer and more rewarding. These two give the drama in this comedy its conviction, and also provide the hearts at stake in the comic romance. When, in the end, Lala finds herself engaged to the ridiculous Peachy Weil (played with good control by Howard Stregack), we recognize that this preposterous second-stringer is as close to Brett Butler as Lala will ever get, and maybe it will be enough.
In addition to the excellent performances and the tight, intelligent direction, this was one of the most physically beautiful productions I've seen at Taproot. The set, by Don Yanik, created just the right sense of comfortable middle-class respectability and substance. The colors also perfectly accented the terrific costumes by Melanie Taylor Burgess, especially as lighted by Jody Briggs. The music chosen for Mark Lund's sound design set the period perfectly.
"The Last Night of Ballyhoo" is one of those peculiar plays that manage to become much more than the sum of their parts. Good comedy, interesting history, compelling romantic drama, all skillfully blended into an evening of satisfying, thoroughly enjoyable entertainment. When the actors are this good, and the director uses them this well, it results in the sort of evening that leaves an audience both moved and amused. What rare fun!
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