October 17, 2018

‘Ballyhoo’ Fails to Inspire

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” arrived at the Cañon Theatre in Beverly Hills last month with impeccable credentials. The author, after all, is Alfred Uhry, whose “Driving Miss Daisy” deservedly swept the New York and Hollywood award boards.

And “Ballyhoo” itself garnered the 1997 Tony Award for its Broadway production, in addition to a basketfull of other honors.

Regrettably, something must have happened on the transcontinental flight to the West Coast, even with the play’s original director, Ron Lagomarsino, on board.

The play is again set in Uhry’s native Atlanta, the time is December 1939, and two major events are agitating Georgia’s capital city and its Jews.

One is the world premiere of “Gone With The Wind;” the other is the upcoming Ballyhoo, the premier social event of the well-established and assimilated German Jews of the city.

Within the Jewish community, there are also “the others” — descendants of more recent immigrants from Eastern Europe. These Ostjuden, unfortunately, make a point of being Jewish and actually seem to enjoy their faith and culture. Fortunately, they reside mainly up north.

Lurking somewhere in the background — rarely mentioned — is Hitler, who has instigated World War II, which probably won’t be good for the Jews.

In the home of the Freitag-Levy clan, they’re busy decorating the Christmas tree. Members of the household are young first cousins, Lala (Perrey Reeves) and Sunny (Rebecca Gayheart), their widowed mothers Boo (Rhea Perlman) and Reba (Harriet Harris), and Uncle Adolph (Peter Michael Goetz), a lifelong bachelor and owner of the Dixie Bedding Co.

Cousin Lala is a bit of a neurotic and frets a great deal about looking “too Jewish.” Cousin Sunny is blonde, beautiful and studying at Wellesley. Mom Boo worries whether daughter, Lala, will get a date for the Ballyhoo, where she might even meet a potential husband.

Something doesn’t click in this production, as the perfunctory applause and post-curtain comments among the mostly elderly, mostly Jewish, crowd indicated. The reason, though, isn’t entirely clear. There is no doubt, as this reviewer knows from personal experience, that the type of German Jew portrayed here actually existed.

But at the Cañon, the emotional interplay among the characters — which rang so true and affecting in “Miss Daisy” — rarely enlists the concern and sympathy of the viewer.

The play closes with an astonishing scene, in which the whole clan, which has spent the last 90 minutes proving its indifference, if not embarrassment, at being Jewish, sits around the Shabbat table.

All link hands in a calendar-art painting of the devoted Jewish family. Some critics have found this scene affecting, but hokey might be more apt.

The stage setting by John Lee Beatty is brilliant, effortlessly switching from drawing room, to dance floor to a train compartment.

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” runs through Jan. 3 at the Cañon Theatre. For information, call (310) 859-2830.