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Georgia on Their Minds

Northside Theatre Company steps back in time with 'The Last Night of Ballyhoo'

By Marianne Messina

ALFRED UHRY'S funny play about a Jewish family in Atlanta, Ga., The Last Night of Ballyhoo, recently overpacked the house at the Northside Theatre. As the play opens, the Freitag family banters about Lala's (Lauren Michelle) escort options for the Ballyhoo dance, a who's-who event among eligible Southern Jews from the right side of the river (Elbe). In this disarmingly pleasant atmosphere, we learn that a social distinction sets German Jews like the Freitag family above Jews from countries like Russia and Czechoslovakia.

Behind the homey amenities and lilting chatter, the nasty zingers fly, especially from Boo Levy (Estelle Piper). As Lala's mom, Boo consistently reminds Lala how quickly she's sinking into spinsterhood. As Adolph Freitag's (Kevin Kennedy) sister, Boo reminds her brother that she was cheated out of her fair share of the family business and lets it be known that she'd have been quite willing (and able) to run the company. Dynamic and fun to watch, Piper's big beautiful Boo Levy can toss off a caustic insult with the most cherubic smile. And sister-in-law Reba Freitag (Pat Cross makes her a sort of addled Helen Mirren) gets her licks in, too.

The word to describe the production elements is cozy. The intimacy of the Olinder Theater conspires with the densely packed set design (Richard T. Orlando) of plush stuffed furniture dreamily lit by onstage lamps (with just a little help from overheads) to soften Uhry's more sinister undertones (the conspicuously named Adolph; the date, 1939; the racial and social tensions of Atlanta society).

Unlike Adolph's new assistant Joe Farkas (Bryan Freeman), who was raised with Jewish traditions in a Jewish neighborhood, the Freitags are the only Jews on an upper-class and predominantly Christian street; they celebrate Christmas with a Christmas tree and know very little Hebrew. At one point, Reba's daughter, Sunny (Fay Massian), tells Joe, "I have a hole where Judaism should be."

The doe-eyed, bear-bodied Bryan Freeman could have been endearing as the young New York go-getter Joe Farkas, if Uhry hadn't scripted him so many obstacles. It's hard to understand why a well-to-do Southern Jewish family with an ancient German pedigree should be expected, in 1939, to see this itinerant working-class Joe as such a "keeper" for their Wellesley-educated Sunny. Is it his lofty position as Adolph's assistant/gofer? Is it his dazzling high school education and Bronxy accent? Or the way a taste of classism somehow shocks his urban world-traveling self into abandoning Sunny at a dance? (Is that supposed to be an affirming gesture—as in "a man's got to have his pride you know"?). Joe is then the character who inspires the family to return to its Judaic traditions. Maybe I missed the part that makes it all work.

In other areas, both the comedy and the message do come together. In an era when Jews aren't allowed in public swimming pools, Lala thinks her cousin Sunny is favored by God because "he didn't give you one Jewish feature." The chemistry between the ebullient, starry-eyed Michelle as Lala and the statuesque Massian, a natural sophisticate (with the smoothest Southern accent), as Sunny, is as painful as an ugly-duckling complex—great casting by Orlando (who directed). And thanks to costume designer Sharon Sanchez-Eakes, Massian actually drew wolf whistles from the audience when she came out dressed for the ball. Kevin Hsieh is great fun as Lara's suitor Peachy Weil. Looking like a white-haired, Asian Little Richard, Hsieh made sure Peachy was a kooky, foppish funboy, at once a disaster of a catch and the perfect match for Lala. Northside's production keeps the humor at a constant smile level despite the dark undertones, a delicate balance and an achievement not always matched by the writing. There are some really funny bits—the funniest are Boo's nastiest digs, those "ouch" moments that make you feel guilty for laughing.

The Last Night of Ballyhoo, a Northside Theatre Company Production, plays Thursday­Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm through Nov. 7 at the Olinder Theater, 848 E. William St., San Jose. Tickets are $12/$15. (408.288.7820)

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From the October 20-26, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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