WHAT “The Last Night of Ballyhoo”
WHEN | WHERE 8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday (dark July 9); 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday and Wednesday; 7 p.m. p.m. Tuesday, through July 24 at Bay Street Theater, Long Wharf, Sag Harbor
TICKETS $25-$125; 631-725-9500, baystreet.org
When Alfred Uhry was invited to write a play for the 1996 Olympics in his hometown of Atlanta, he asked, “Does it have to be about sports?”
Good thing the answer was no. There’s nothing sporting about Uhry’s Atlanta trilogy: “Driving Miss Daisy” (1987), “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” or “Parade” (1998). Bay Street Theater observes its 25th season with a 20th anniversary production of “The Last Night . . .” As directed by Bay Street associate artistic director Will Pomerantz, an expertly cast ensemble raises Uhry’s social commentary from what can be read as preachy platitudes to an absorbing reflection of human frivolity, frailty and fortitude approaching Tennessee Williams territory with a relevance that feels current.
Frivolity revolves around the “Gone With the Wind” obsession of Lala, played with convincing neurotic tics by Erin Neufer, in 1939 Atlanta. Frailty is shared in the social chasm separating “east-of-Elba” origins demarcating West-Central and Eastern European Jews. Fortitude is fiercely embodied by Ari Brand as Joe, a Brooklyn Jew wise to anti-Semitism except when emanating from fellow Jews. Also, he’s in love.
Ballyhoo is a Southern-wide occasion, a holiday ball for assimilated “Hanukkah-bush” Jews restricted from Christian country clubs. The “other kind” — Orthodox Eastern European Jews — are not welcome among these German-American Jews. Ballyhoo, says Sunny, played by Amanda Kristin Nichols with intelligent-yet-egregious ignorance of her roots, “is just a bunch of dressed-up Jews dancing around, wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians.”
Dori Legg as Sunny’s sympathetically ditsy mom wonders how a sensible Wesleyan College girl could be her daughter. Ellen Harvey as Lala’s mom shocks us with a coarse epithet while earning sympathy with flashes of vulnerability (“I thought we’d be happy,” she tells her brother, Adolph, inaptly named as Hitler is on the rise). Daniel Abeles as Peachy keeps everyone guessing about his Ballyhoo intentions while John Hickok as Adolph, the bachelor patriarch, anchors the family with a glib, dry-wit charm.
Alexander Dodge’s “Gone With the Wind” staircase set captures Southern opulence while accommodating romantically critical passenger-train scenes, both embroidered by Lindsay Davis costumes ranging from Lala’s outlandish “Scarlett O’Goldberg” gown to period-appropriate hosiery seams.
While we don’t believe Sunny is so oblivious that she hasn’t a clue of what the Yiddish word “klutz” means, “Ballyhoo” bears witness to the power of getting to know the “other kind” among us — that it is possible to learn the language of intra- as well as interfaith coexistence. Naive? Perhaps. Or not.