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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

‘Ballyhoo’ a ball of a good time

Published: December 2, 2011
Section: Arts, Etc.

“Dreams don’t last four hours.”

These were the words uttered by Beulah Levy (Joanna Nix ’14) after her daughter, Lala (Jacquelyn Drozdow ’15), hails the newly premiered “Gone with the Wind” as a dream. “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” presented by Hillel Theater Group (HTG) on the weekend before Thanksgiving, was not a dream but, at about two hours, was pretty close.

“The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” written by Alfred Uhry, who also wrote the acclaimed “Driving Miss Daisy,” follows the Freitag and Levy family in the last two weeks of 1939. The family lives together in a house in Atlanta, Ga., struggling to find their place as the only wealthy Jewish family on their street. The play’s drama revolves around Ballyhoo, an annual dance that the local Jewish country club holds to which the two young ladies of the play wish to go.

Lala wants her uncle’s young business protege, Joe Farkas (Ryan Kacani ’15), to ask her but he quickly gains affection for Lala’s cousin, Sunny Freitag (Viktoria Lange ’13), and asks her to the dance.

Through each character’s focus on Ballyhoo, the true themes of “Ballyhoo” emerge. “Ballyhoo” is about Jewish assimilation into Southern Christian culture and the intolerance between different groups of Jews, an apt play for HTG to perform.

The Freitag and Levy family have become so assimilated into Southern culture that they decorate a Christmas tree in their front parlor and know next to nothing about Jewish holidays. Joe, who was raised as a proud Jew in New York, tries to engage them in discussions about what he considers to be their Jewish anti-Semitism but is often overlooked because he is “the other kind of Jew.”

The family draws a distinction between themselves, wealthy Jews of German ancestry, and the other kind, Joe’s kind, the Russian Jews. While they see the Russian Jews as inferior, they are also forced to consider their own heritage in one brief scene in which Adolph Freitag (Ben Miller ’15) reads about the impending European War. I wish this scene had been expanded.

The set of “Ballyhoo,” like most Brandeis-production sets, was flawless. The stage was made to look like the Freitag and Levy family’s front parlor and kitchen, and director Helena Raffel ’14 made great use of the space as she had the actors exiting the stage into different parts of the house and occasionally calling out things from off-stage.

The clear stand-out of “Ballyhoo” was Joanna Nix who imbued Beulah with a certain snobbish vigor while maintaining a sympathetic air. Although Beulah is one of the worst offenders when it comes to “Jew-hating” despite her Jewish status, it is impossible not to like her. The widowed Beulah tries to reign in her daughter’s fancies to give her daughter a good life despite her own bitterness.

Nix’s accent was subtle yet rang true; some of the accents in the show were a bit too emphatic and detracted from the dialogue. The small frown gracing Nix’s face every time she said something sarcastic or scolded a family member really brought Beulah to life.

A close second to Nix’s performance was that of Viktoria Lange as Sunny. Lange’s accent was understated as well and she brought a sweetness to her character despite some of the ignorant things she uttered. Lange’s shining moment was an argument between herself and her cousin, Drozdow’s Lala. The cousins are polar opposites: Lala is flighty and superficial while Sunny is intelligent and aspiring; Lala is forceful while Sunny is shy.

In the argument, Lala accuses Sunny of trying to get all the attention at Lala’s father’s funeral years earlier, even though Sunny had gotten all the attention at her own father’s funeral just three months previously. Lala claims this is Sunny’s modus operandi, always stealing Lala’s thunder.

This scene was Drozdow’s best moment in the show. In most scenes, her overzealous accent was a bit grating and her character was just incredibly annoying, a problem with the character, not the actress. In this scene, however, Drozdow forces the audience to empathize with Lala and we really understand her neuroses and her obsession with Ballyhoo.

Ben Miller was spectacular. His Adolph was understated and had great comedic timing. His few serious scenes were well done but he truly shone when delivering his one-liners.

While the four actors mentioned above were very good, they were forced to carry the show for their three remaining cast members. While Ryan Kacani was not bad, he was not particularly good either. He seemed very uncomfortable with his body, sitting oddly and leaning on things stiffly, and he only seemed to have two expressions: thoughtful and confused.

Still, he was better than Sarah Pace ’13 who was so over-the-top in her portrayal of Reba Freitag that her every line was painful. Her accent was fine but the falsetto voice she accompanied it with was irritating and detracted from what otherwise would have been a fine performance.

And the worst was John Seale ’15 as Sylvan “Peachy” Weil. His accent was atrocious, each line fell flatly and he just destroyed every scene in which he appeared. Luckily, he was in very little of the show.

Despite the misstep in casting Pace and Seale, the show was very good and the other actors performed admirably. While I disliked the show’s ending, that is a complaint against the playwright, not the show.

All in all, “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” was well done and I left the theater impressed both by the show chosen and the manner in which it was presented.