By the end of Act One, Lala Levy is as mad as hell, and she's not gonna take this any more. Lala's soap-opera life has never been easy. She's a college dropout; boys don't find her attractive. Worst of all, despite her self-proclaimed moxie, Lala has to live in the same house with her accomplished and popular cousin, the aptly named Sunny (Alexandra Woodruff), who's currently excelling at Wellesley. No sooner has Sunny returned home for Christmas vacation than Joe Farkas (Adam Moskal), a good-looking young fellow who works for the girls' uncle, contrives a specious reason to pay a late-night visit to their home. While Lala is off brewing coffee, Joe invites Sunny to Ballyhoo, the social event of the year for young Jews in Atlanta. Lala returns from the kitchen to discover she has been eclipsed by Sunny yet again.
"Not even 24 hours in the house," Lala lashes out at her stunned cousin, "and you're already lording it over me." To Lala, Sunny's acceptance of Joe's invite is only the most recent of her many misdeeds. Years earlier, it seems, Sunny stole the limelight by wearing a new blue suit to Lala's father's funeral. "That was supposed to be my tragedy," Lala erupts, in a manner that bespeaks years of pent-up resentment. The compelling scene, especially as acted with a quiet, irrational rage by Rachel Fenton in the current New Jewish Theatre staging of Alfred Uhry's Tony Award-winning The Last Night of Ballyhoo, exposes the raw marrow of a young girl's repressed pain in a way we rarely see. (Who obsesses over what mourners wear to funerals?) For a few minutes, Ballyhoo is both bizarre and original. Yet this discomforting confrontation almost feels out of place, because for most of the evening the play strives for little more than cozy comfort.
With five people living under the same roof — two cousins, their widowed mothers and their Uncle Arnold — there's enough plot here to fill three plays. (The world premiere of Gone With the Wind figures fleetingly into the action, to boot.) But despite the abundance of incident, there's not much penetration. As the adage goes, Ballyhoo feels a mile wide and an inch deep. It's set mostly in December 1939, two months after Germany invaded Poland. This we learn from Uncle Adolph (affably played by Greg Johnston), who, upon reading the news in the evening paper, remarks, "This Hitler business in Poland ain't gonna turn out good." And that's pretty much the extent of Ballyhoo's sense of history.
But surely Uhry (who also wrote Driving Miss Daisy) has something on his mind. In the playbill, director Gary Wayne Barker succinctly describes the play's theme as "internal prejudice" — in other words, the snobbish hierarchy among Southern Jews. Those of German descent feel a smug superiority to those whose descendants hail from "east of the Elbe" (i.e., Russia and Poland). The audience is stunned when Boo (Peggy Billo), Lala's abrasive mother, calls Joe "a kike." But the crude invective does not lead to a moment of revelation; the character assassination is intoned solely for theatrical effect. We hear the line. Lights out. End of scene.
Ballyhoo, which premiered in 1997, has been compared to The Glass Menagerie, for here too the plot concerns an overly protective mother, a hapless daughter, a gentleman caller. But Uhry is more in tune with William Inge than with Tennessee Williams. He shares Inge's affinity for detailing small events within the confines of a family fold. Many of the events in Ballyhoo bear an uncannily similarity to the key plot points in Inge's The Dark at the Top of the Stairs.
Director Gary Wayne Barker makes effective use of his space, reminding us that no matter how capacious this handsome home (designed by Justin Barisonek) may be, it's not large enough to accommodate all the baggage its five occupants are carrying. The appealing production is easy to take; an abundance of laugh lines keeps the audience engaged. But that eerie scene about fashion wear at family funerals is a nagging reminder of how remarkable The Last Night of Ballyhoo might have been, had its author excavated his material with keener penetration from beginning to end.