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[whitespace] 'The Last Night of Ballyhoo' Hoopskirt Hoopla: Debutante Lala (Tanya Shaffer, right), potential escort Peachy (Noel Wood) and Lala's mother, Boo (Sheila O'Neill Ellis) make much ado about the Ballyhoo cotillion.

Photograph by David Allen

Southern Discomfort

The Freitags of Atlanta are busy trying to fit in and exclude in 'The Last Night of Ballyhoo'

By Michael J. Vaughn

THE FOLKS AT TheatreWorks have finally run out the string on Jewish assimilation plays. The latest, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, gives one helluva shot at a new variation, mixing anti-Semitism with old-fashioned Southern racism, but playwright Alfred Uhry wusses out on the juiciest aspect of all, intra-Jewish hatred. Not that Ballyhoo isn't entertaining. When you first hear those cackling Southern drawls coming out of the Freitag clan (circa 1939), you'll likely have the same reaction as visiting Brooklynite Joe (Brian Herndon): "Are you people really Jewish?"

The Jewish community of Atlanta, in fact, has raised the bar for "fitting in" to dangerous heights, creating the Ballyhoo cotillion as a Judaic alternative for those country-club dances from which they've long been barred. They've even found a group against which they themselves may discriminate: "the other ones," a code phrase meaning Jews of Eastern European extraction. Uhry pulls laughter aplenty from the Freitags' yearning for high society, notably from Lala Levy, the "Scarlet O'Goldberg" of the clan, and her dreams of a genteel (or was it gentile?) Gone With the Wind existence to match that movie's very recent premiere. Tanya Shaffer plays the Vivien Leigh poor-little-stupid-girl to the hilt, obsessing over her dubious Ballyhoo prospects with the help of her mother Boo, played by Sheila O'Neill Ellis in a shrieking delivery halfway between Mama's Family and Chris Rock. When Noel Wood swaggers in as Louisiana nutball Peachy Weil, Lala has clearly met her match, and the comic circle is complete.

Meanwhile, at the deep end of the gene pool, Lala's intelligent, gorgeous cousin Sunny (played by the ever-radiant Jessa Brie Berkner) has fallen for Joe, and vice versa. Joe, played by Herndon with a gentle affability, has invited Sunny to the big ball, not realizing that he himself, being of Polish descent, is one of "the other ones."

Director Amy Gonzalez and a superb cast do their damnedest to make Ballyhoo fly--pivoting with great agility around David Silberman's uncle Adolph, a Jewish version of Burl Ives, and Eric Sinkkonen's lovely tiled stairway--but it doesn't entirely work, because Uhry seems to lack courage. His juicy conflict comes and goes in a flash; we're left with a completely unconvincing picture of familial unity and the feeling that we've been cheated out of a really good, rip-roaring fight. In the end, The Last Night of Ballyhoo will stick with you for about 10 minutes after you leave the theater, and then disappear in a puff of Southern stereotypes. And frankly, my dear, it's a damn shame.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo plays Tuesday-Sunday through Feb. 11 at Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, Mercy and Castro streets, Mountain View. Tickets are $20-$38. (650.903.6000)

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From the January 25-31, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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