… how do you fit in? …
December 1939, Atlanta Georgia, Hitler has just invaded Poland and Gone With The Wind is premiering in Atlanta, but in the Freitag family, the big stir is that the end-of-year Ballyhoo party at Atlanta’s German Jewish social club is about to take place. In keeping with the way human concerns flow from near to far, the global significance of Hitler’s invasion is barely comprehended while the question of who will escort daughter Lala to the Ballyhoo Ball is the concern prime center.
We’re in a wealthy Jewish Atlanta family’s home, richly and tastefully decorated all the way to a shining ornaments and tinsel on the Christmas tree with its star on top (a subject of mild controversy). Adolf Freitag runs a successful bedding business, and serves as the man of the family among four women: his widowed pushy sister Boo, her star-struck and impractical daughter Lala, their vague but canny sister-in-law Reba, also widowed, and Reba’s bright daughter Sunny, a junior at Wellesley College.
Into the mix comes Joe Farkas, a young man from Brooklyn, who is an Eastern European Jew (in contrast to the German Jewish Freitags). Everybody looks down on somebody: the Christian Atlantans look down on the Freitags because they’re Jewish, and the German Jews, Boo Freitag in particular, look down on Eastern European Jews.
But Adolf has seen outstanding promise in Joe Farkas and has hired him as his business assistant. Lala takes one look at handsome Joe and is lining him up in her mind as a date for the Ballyhoo ball – though she already has a boyfriend who’s supposed to escort her, Peachy Weil, but he’s from out of town and a bird in the hand … Joe, though, is more drawn to the brainy elegance of Sunny, down for the holidays.
The play has the look of a romantic comedy, as the deep attraction between Joe and Sunny and the on-again-off-again relationship between the more lightweight characters, Lala and Peachy, play out, with Lala flouncing around adorably in her Scarlett O’Hara dress. But through it all run the important tensions created by snobbery, in-group versus out-group prejudice, and the painful process of finding a way to fit in.
The position of the Freitags is equivocal: they are Americans, and Atlantans from many generations back, and a respected and successful business family. Still, as Jews, they never quite belong. How they handle the uncertainties of their status is fascinating. For instance, not being allowed in Christian social clubs, the Freitags are among those who established their own German Jewish social club.
The celebration of Christmas highlights the ambiguities: as assimilated Jews, they decorate a tall Christmas tree for what Lala asserts is a “national holiday” but even within the family there are disagreements about whether a star at the top is or is not “OK” for them.
As the play progresses, and the romantic relationships develop, Joe’s more forthright relationship to Judaism, as well as his clearer view of the threat of Hitler, begin to shape that of the Freitags. If you see the play – and it’s well worth seeing! — watch what happens to the tree during the course of the scenes, all the way to the final dream-like episode.
Erin Neufer is quite adorable as the skittish and flamboyant Lala, and Daniel Abeles is a good foil as her boyfriend, a mediocre guy with a fancy pedigree who takes refuges in his amusing ironic good humor. Ellen Harvey, as Boo, is wonderfully certain of the right way to do everything, and Dori Legg is charming as Reba, a slightly daffy character who gets the point by seeming to miss it. John Hickok is bemused but self-confident as Adolf, and Amanda Kristin Nichols is believable as the college girl with an interest in politically progressive writers that sits well with Joe Farkas.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo was commissioned for the 1996 Summer Olympics and played in Atlanta, moving on to Broadway where it won the Tony award for Best Play in 1997 among other awards. Although it doesn’t have quite the emotional naturalness of the author’s earlier play, Driving Miss Daisy, like that one, it recognizes the power of love to help overcome destructive bigotry, and takes a moving stand on the side of celebrating our common humanity.
It’s a play you’re happy to spend time with and glad to sink your teeth into. Thanks to Bay Street Theater for giving us a fine production.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo plays at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, Long Island, through July 24, 2016. For more information and tickets, click here.