A Christmas tree in the living room of a Jewish family in 1939 Atlanta, Georgia forces different reactions from characters in the Jewish Repertory Theatre of Western New York’s production of Alfred Uhry’s The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
One family member defends the custom as quaint and decorative, like hearts on Valentine’s Day. Another character is appalled a Jewish family would suggest the celebration of a Christian holiday. An upstart teen enters the living room and declares with warmth and familiarity, “Ah! A Hanukkah bush!”
Meanwhile the threat of World War II looms from the nightly news on the dimly lit radio, and Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh are in town for the world premiere of Gone With The Wind. But never mind that. A seasonal teen party, Ballyhoo, is commencing and Lala Levy doesn’t have a date.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo is a period domestic comedy as cozy as a holiday eggnog and as spirited as a shot of whiskey in the cup. It offers a modest life lesson to be true to one’s self, and drapes a cheery wreath around a family at holiday time. What Eugene O’Neill’s Ah, Wilderness! does for the Fourth of July, Ballyhoo does for a Jewish Christmas.
Occasionally, genuinely upsetting drama finds its way into this light-hearted affair, with Lala (Jennifer Leibowitz) threatening her own glass menagerie daydream of movie star magazines and pulp fiction romance. Her petty teen angst (boy trouble mostly) is suggested as evolving from deeper psychological roots. Fortunately for the warm comedy lovers among us, any recognizable pathos concerning flirting rather than engaging life becomes weightless, wat with the Ballyhoo dance and everything else going on.
While the Christmas tree is a funny prop, and remains on stage throughout, it doesn’t look characterized as being representative of its caretakers. As it is, it looks like it was purchased at Dollar General with lights intact, and immediately ignored.
Why is playwright Alfred Uhry’s domestic arrangement so severe? Initially what we see suggests a common family situation, as if Beaver Cleaver could burst through the door at any moment. We soon learn that the adult Levy family consists of a man, his sister, and his sister-in-law, and this production offers little reason for the awkward familial design. Indeed the adults of this play have little psychological value.
Lisa Ludwig as apparent matriarch, Boo Levy, boosts Ballyhoo with a wildly gruff voice and manner, keeping Christmas as one might drink a green beer in a silly hat on St. Patrick’s Day. She makes comedic mincemeat of any suggestion she is a tragic Tennessee Williams heroine.
There is a beautiful scene with Sunny Freitag (Bonnie Jean Taylor), on a train home from college, gazing at the familiar sights of home, that is as richly detailed as cinema.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Tony winner for Best Play of the 1997 Broadway season and penned by the author of Driving Miss Daisy, will find you confronting your own magnificent voids, as one character puts it describing her religion. Take my Catholicism, please. The play is sweet and touching, especially its final scene, and offers a heartfelt expression of the holidays.
It plays through November 7 at The Alleyway Theatre in Buffalo, New York.