Before there were cousins bickering over Judaism, unruly hair, and relationships in Bad Jews, there were cousins bickering over Judaism, unruly hair, and relationships in The Last Night of Ballyhoo.
The former play was a sell-out smash hit at Studio Theatre in 2014 and 2015, and has been performed throughout the world. It’s set, like so many other 21st century dramas, in a present-day New York apartment. Ballyhoo begins in 1930s Atlanta, and was commissioned to coincide with 1996 Summer Olympics. Alfred Uhry’s historic comedic drama may lack the combustible angst that’s become de rigueur in contemporary theater, but Ballyhoo did win a Tony Award for best play, and in Theater J’s enjoyable and gratifying production, the show holds up well.
Shayna Blass and Madeline Rose Burrows star as the unfortunately named cousins Lala and Sunny. Washington has a surfeit of talented 20-something actresses these days, so it’s lovely to see Blass and Burrows (who have played supporting characters at Studio and Signature) get top billing at Theater J. The play’s title refers to a holiday prom for the South’s Jewish elite, young people whose ancestors were bar mitzvahed before the Civil War. Excluded from the soiree are newer immigrants, the Jews from “East of the Elbe,” as Sunny’s mother Reba says. Or as Lala’s mother Beulah deems them, “the other kind.”
When Sunny is not up north at Wellesley, the four women live together on the fashionable, actual Atlanta street called Habersham Road. (Uhry wrote the play in the aftermath of his proletariat hit Driving Miss Daisy, drawing on his own family lore.) As Ballyhoo opens, Lala is humming “The First Noel” off-key and trimming a tree that’s clearly visible through the set’s windows, and to audiences who may have walked in wondering, “A Christmas tree at Theater J? WTF?,” it’s Beulah, tartly played by Susan Rome, who justifies the conifer’s presence with the first of many zingers. As she tells her daughter, the tree looks lovely but take the star off because, “There are no stars on Jewish Christmas trees.”
A star would, of course, acknowledge that Jesus Christ was the Messiah.
Assimilation has clearly been key for this family’s social and financial well being. But it’s December of 1939, and things are about to change. Beulah’s brother Adolph (an endearing Sasha Olinick) hires Joe, a young Brooklyn-born salesman to be both his right-hand man in the family business and also a potential gentleman caller for his nieces. Because Joe is an “other kind” guy from Brooklyn, Beulah is less than thrilled that both girls are smitten.
Uhry has not protested when Beulah is called a Jewish Amanda Wingfield, and like Laura Wingfield in Tennessee Williams’ classic, Lala dropped out of school. Instead of a glass menagerie, however, Lala has Scarlett O’Hara to keep her preoccupied. Why, she’s even writing her own Reconstruction radio drama! And as Blass’ character wistfully notes, Clark Gable is a mere five miles away the night Gone With the Wind premieres in Atlanta.
Posters from the film hang at the rear of Daniel Conway’s not-quite-naturalistic set. Some costumes, hairstyles and props, however, give the show an unintended 1950s vibe. It takes Adolph looking up from his Atlanta Constitution and muttering about Hitler to remind viewers the action takes place before the United States entered World War II.
For those unfamiliar with historic tensions between America’s Jewish populations, it’s horrifying to think that some were initially apathetic to the horror facing Eastern Europe’s Jews. Beulah is certainly more concerned about getting her misfit daughter a date for the last night of Ballyhoo than the Blitzkrieg in Poland.
Joe chooses the Upton Sinclair-reading Sunny instead of Lala, prompting the rejected cousin to bemoan her Ashkenazi-looking large nose and out-of-control hair. Sunny, meanwhile, speaks dreamily of her date’s curly coif. Then she learns that embracing Joe will require more wholeheartedly embracing their shared faith.The play’s final moments are almost shockingly saccharine, especially given the explosive endings we’ve become accustomed to seeing in shows like Bad Jews, which concludes with an onstage brawl and a gut punch. But after a year of watching so much unapologetic prejudice on the news—from President Trump, Richard Spencer, Roy Moore and other 2017 scions—there is something to be said for sitting in a theater and watching fictional characters learn their lessons, and learn to love one another.
At Theater J to Dec. 31. 1529 16th St. NW. $30–$69. (202) 777-3210. theaterj.org.