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Hamptons Life

Jul 3, 2016 6:45 PMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

'The Last Night of Ballyhoo' Excels In Dramedy, Class Conflict

John Hickok, Dori Legg, Ellen Harvey, Erin Neufer, and Daniel Abeles in
Jul 4, 2016 2:04 PM

Class. Are you up or down? Golfing at the manicured Maidstone or the gnarly links near Barcelona Neck? Are you South of the Highway or, at least, in the Village of Sag Harbor, not merely nearby in outer Noyac? Class may be more mobile in America than elsewhere, but it certainly is no less gone than that unruly weed in your backyard that won’t quit.

How that bias infects our lives and directs our choices is the subject of “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Alfred Uhry’s discerning rumination on the subject now in revival at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor. A not-so-gentle satire, the 1997 Tony Award winner for Best Play was well chosen for a Hamptons audience, for which club membership or what cocktail parties one is seen at denote one’s standing in the pecking order as meticulously as a listing in the Social Register.

The subject at hand here is Jew to Jew. Specifically, how Jewish are you? Do you downplay your Jewishness or scrupulously observe Shabbat? Are your roots from east of the Elbe, and thus likely to be not so well educated and without a swell pedigree? Or are you German Jew—denoting that you are successful, educated, sophisticated?

That cultural clash is the curdled pudding of “Ballyhoo,” warmed up with tender barbs and amusing lines: “There’s nothing wrong with pedigree!” Response: “If you are breeding cocker spaniels.”

Set in 1939 Atlanta, an upper-class Jewish mama, Boo Levy (a superb Ellen Harvey), is in a blather about her hapless daughter’s lack of a date for the major social event of the year. That’s the formal ball the last night of Ballyhoo, a several-day celebration at their tony private club, The Standard—the Meadow/Maidstone equivalent for the upper crust of Atlanta’s Jewish population. The less-fortunate Jews belong to The Progressive and never the twain should socialize or, God forbid, intermarry. Like Dickens, Mr. Uhry is not subtle about names.

Into this burbling hothouse, Boo’s bachelor brother, Adolph (an avuncular John Hickok), brings a new employee, Joe Farkas (Ari Brand), to work for their Dixie Bedding Company, and to dinner. Adolph thinks Joe is a comer, but Boo pays him no mind—he’s the wrong sort. With recent Eastern European roots. From Brooklyn. Besides, he’s very Jewish. Boo’s family is so acclimated they have a Christmas tree.

Other characters fill out the family: Boo’s sister-in-law, Reba (a wonderfully daft Dori Legg), who sits, knits and merrily misconstrues what’s being said; and Reba’s blonde, pretty, intelligent daughter, Sunny (a cool Amanda Kristin Nichols). She arrives from Wellesley College talking of Upton Sinclair, the popular writer who made America aware of the harsh lives of recent immigrants, the very group from which Joe comes. Yes, it is a bit too tidy.

While her cousin, Lala (Erin Neufer) cares only about the premiere of “Gone with the Wind,” which is taking place right then and there, Sunny is the polar opposite—studious, composed, blonde. In short, she’s perfect. While there are plenty of quotable lines throughout the play, Sunny has one of the best as she describes the dance itself: “a bunch of dressed-up Jews dancing around and wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians.”

Ms. Neufer brings Lala to life effortlessly as a skinny flibbertigibbet, yet always sympathetic. When Ms. Neufer loses it in a conflict with her cousin Sunny, you can feel the electricity bounce off her.

Just in time, her proper match, a nice Jewish boy of the right sort, arrives to be Lala’s date. His name? Peachy, with red hair to boot. Daniel Abeles is that kid from prep school who never had a bad day or a serious thought, but he isn’t a bad guy. Very clubbable.

Sunny’s name is a tipoff this that is a play not only set in the ’30s, but that it hews to a retro frame of mind and style. Will Pomerantz, who has a passel of credits all over the East Coast, has directed a first-rate cast who poke fun and elicit laughs with conventional sincerity. How else to account for a line at the end when the jubilant young wooer responds when his love asks about their future: “Who knows, Sunshine? We’ve got a whole lifetime to choose from!”

Nineteen-thirty nine? Hilter’s incursion into Poland is noted from newspaper accounts, but has no obvious effect on this family’s outlook—their roots are here, not over there. Though the writing perfectly suits this period piece, the plot line with its unmistakable message about class and acceptance is as meaningful today as it was then. Ask me, I’m Polish/Russian.

Designer Alexander Dodge’s set is a smashing lush living/dining room with a surprise second set that I’ll let playgoers discover themselves. It’s quite a feat how he brings it off, and together the two are the most ambitious I’ve seen at Bay Street. Kudos!

Knowing that Sunny and Joe’s courtship is the story of Mr. Uhry’s parents adds a personal dimension to the dramedy. It’s not right to call it a comedy—it’s more thoughtful than that—but there is plenty of humor to make the social commentary go down without causing a burn. Yet you will leave thinking.

“Ballyhoo” didn’t quite achieve the warm glow and ultimate prominence of “Driving Miss Daisy,” which earned Mr. Uhry a Pulitizer and spawned a movie that won the Oscar. But “Last Night at Ballyhoo” provides a swell night of perceptive and witty theater just the same.

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo” will be staged at Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor, through July 24. Showtimes this week are Thursday, July 7, at 8 p.m.; Friday, July 8, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, July 10, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m.; Tuesday, July 12, at 7 p.m.; and Wednesday, July 13, at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Tickets range from $25 to $125. Call 631-725-0818, go to baystreet.org or visit the box office.

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Fantastic review.
By Ebreporter (2), Southampton on Jul 4, 16 11:42 PM
Sag Harbor, Music Festival, Tickets, Nancy Atlas, American Music