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Theater Review

A `Ballyhoo' With Subtle Substance

November 22, 2001|F. KATHLEEN FOLEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The winner of the 1997 Tony for best play, Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo" is a gilt-edged greeting card of a play--lovely to look at but overly sentimental. Fortunately, Uhry's period piece about a Southern Jewish family's struggles with ethnic identity is more dramatically substantial then "Driving Miss Daisy," Uhry's smash 1987 play, later an Oscar-winning movie. Unlike "Daisy," "Ballyhoo" is devoid of tear-jerking blatancy. When our tears finally come, they flow freely, without manipulation.

The setting is 1939 Atlanta during the premiere of "Gone With the Wind"--a welcome distraction from the advancing screech of Hitler's war machine.

Adolph Freitag (Joel Brooks), a pillar of the Southern Jewish aristocracy, is keenly aware of the disaster brewing overseas. However, his female dependents, including his fluffy sister-in-law, Reba (Norma J. Morrow), and his termagant sister, Boo (Judith Ann Levitt), are largely oblivious to the world outside their cozy, privileged microcosm.

Polar opposites, Boo's neurotic daughter, Lala (Lydia Lee Belvin), and Reba's beautiful, sensible daughter, Sunny (Ali Humiston), are both romantically interested in Joe Farkas (Fred Savage), Adolph's new business assistant. A Russian Jew from Brooklyn, Joe only has eyes for Sunny, but he is increasingly appalled by her circle's laissez-faire attitude toward religion, particularly after learning that Ballyhoo, the annual Jewish ball, is restricted to German Jews only.

Hope Alexander's lushly nostalgic staging at El Portal's Circle Theater features a handsome set by Sets to Go Inc. and a dream cast, including Greg Vojtanek as Lala's obnoxious suitor. Savage, late of television's "The Wonder Years," has successfully vaulted the gap between child-actor cuteness and maturity, emerging as a superb young actor, the spiritual center of the play.

"The Last Night of Ballyhoo," El Portal's Circle Theater, 5269 Lankershim Blvd., North Hollywood. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays-Sundays, 2 p.m. Dark today. Ends Dec. 16. $22-$25. (818) 508-4200. Running time: 2 hours.

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