Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Tag: Alfred Uhry

Bay Street Theater, Sag Harbor, Long Island, and The Last Night of Ballyhoo

Review | The Last Night Of Ballyhoo | By Alfred Uhry | Directed by Will Pomerantz | Bay Street Theatre, Sag Harbor, Long Island

… 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.

Review | Angel Reapers | By Martha Clarke and Alfred Uhry | Signature Theatre

Directed and Choreographed by Martha Clarke

Here again Martha Clarke has given us a lovely new creation of her unique vision, a theatrical union of dance, music and narrative.  Although Angel Reapers, about repression and ecstasy among the Shakers, is a smaller, less commanding theater piece than Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights and her staging of  Threepenny Opera, it has her mark.

The Shakers religious sect is known for celibacy and ecstatic prayer and in Angel Reapers these are two sides of the same coin.  Repression finds an outlet in wildness, sanctioned and controlled by rigid dogma and social control.

While awaiting the performance — and the prayer meeting — the audience sits on two sides of the austere meeting house, near to becoming part of the congregation. We are in the original Shaker foundation in the United States, a group headed by Mother Ann Lee who came here with a small circle fellow Shakers, including her brother William, in the late 18th century .

I’ll never forget the beginning of this play: men and women uniformly dressed by gender, silently, in a choreographed but natural seeming entry, take seats opposite one another in the unadorned, white washed meeting house. And after a notably long silence (in which you think you’ve figured out that this is going to be all about repression) they break into laughter.

It’s life-affirming, and conveys quickly the tension between straight-faced discipline and irrepressible human emotions that the play is all about.

And then they break into song.

In a beautiful pattern of emerging, we get to know driving aspects of each character’s  emotional history. Through mime, song, dance and speech, we encounter the heartaches, spiritual conflicts, suffered abuses, thwarted passions, religious yearnings, and idealistic visions that thrust the characters toward the tightly structured Shaker life.  Beneath the cloak of conformity, suffering and pleasure are personal

At prayer meetings, as in revival meetings, ecstatic dance and song pull individuals from communal obedience to private gyrations, spastic movements, seizures, rolling on the floor, these movements signifying loss of control choreographed to beauty by Clarke.

But ecstatic release in song and dance doesn’t erase the effects of sexual repression and its heavy burden of guilt: within this small, tight knit community, homosexual yearnings are barely concealed. Incestuous love is conveyed in a delicate scene in which Brother Lee tenderly washes the feet of his sister, Mother Ann Lee who – what an irony – makes the rules here.  The passionate, anarchic love affair between a young man and woman, followed to its outcome, creates something of a plot. The essential narrative, however, is the emerging of characters from communal to specific.

Clarke’s previous extravaganzas have filled the eyes with luscious color. Here she takes a turn to tones of gray and white.  The women wear modest grey dresses and white coifs and the production, with costumes by Donna Zakowska and scene design by Marsha Ginsberg, takes its cues from those colors.  Color is like that: placing a Rembrandt next to a Rubens, the muted colors more than hold their own.

The cast that sings, dances, mimes and speaks is excellent. The dancing of the men in particular, with their powerful stomping, whirling movements, all right near you in the small theater, is vibrant and exciting.

While enjoying Clarke’s sumptuous theatricality, one senses that the underlying script is thin.  Also there is a toward the end there’s some awkward speechifying —  the authors seem to be trying to make sure we know what to think about what we’ve seen — which is unnecessary and interrupts the wholeness of the production.  In spite of a tailing off at the end, one leaves still in the thrall of Martha Clarke’s vision.

Music direction and arrangements are by Arthur Solari who also worked with Samuel Crawford on Sound design.  Lighting design, which brings out the beauty of the greys and whites almost as if you’re seeing through a delicate filter, is by Christopher Akerland, .

Angel Reapers plays at Signature Theatre on Manhattan’s West 42nd Street through March 20th.  For more information and tickets, click here.

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén