Look Oy Vey, Dixieland
Two plays, one question: What does it mean when members of an ethnic group practice intolerance toward their own? In Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo, now onstage at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, the Freitags and Levys, a noisy family of non-observant Jews in 1939 Atlanta, don't take kindly to "the other kind." Putting down Jews from "east of the Elbe" while putting up their own giant Christmas tree, this clan seems only vaguely aware of Hitler's ongoing invasion of Poland. They're too busy trying to marry off daughters to wealthy Jewish boys from the South, the "right kind" who don't care to keep kosher because that would mean missing the Easter egg hunt.
In Martice Enterprises' smartly performed but thinly written new comedy,Buford Gomez: Tales of a Right-Wing Border Patrol Officer, a Yankee Doodle INS agent is stunned to discover he's actually illegitimate and Mexican. This doesn't sit too well with this boot-scootin' redneck, who calls himself a "mean, green deportin' machine." Buford (played with a wicked gleam by Anthony L. Ramirez) proudly spouts his down-the-snout opinions of everyone and everything Latino. "Cubans are Mexi-kins on rafts...Peruvians are just Japanese Mexi-kins," he states. "And folklorico dancers are all gay."
In both plays, characters freely hurl nasty racial slurs to shield their self-loathing. In Buford it's all played for laughs. Playwright Rick Najera paints his central figure as a flag-waving buffoon who eventually is stripped of his silly prejudices and most of his clothes (all but his Old Glory boxers). The show's other characters--a saucy but shallow telenovela star (the adorable Lada Vishtak), a toothpick-twirling drug lord (rubber-limbed, comedically gifted Marco Rodriguez), a gay Latino movie producer (Rodriguez again), Buford's wacky mother (Dolores Godinez) and simple-minded Mexican father (Anthony L. Ramirez, doubling up on roles)--never rise beyond cartoony stereotypes.
Najera also wrote Latinologues, which the Martice troupe performed last summer. It went for many of the same run-for-the-border jokes in strikingly similar monologues. If he's trying for something more theatrical this time, a full-length play closer to a Hispanic Greater Tuna, Najera has instead settled for canned humor à la Paul Rodriguez. Buford is as flat as a chalupa and a little stale, mild where it should be caliente. A lot of tightening and rewriting must happen to make Buford Gomez into a script of any lasting importance. Right now it's an hour of pretty funny monologues interrupted by another hour of unfunny ones. In its bare-bones production, set in a stifling rehearsal space under the Majestic Theatre, Martice Enterprises expends its gourmet acting talent on a mostly unsatisfying, fast-food script.
Ballyhoo has its light moments, too, but this is a play that takes itself and its subject--elitist attitudes of Southern Jews toward their East Coast Orthodox counterparts--a little too seriously. Once again playwright Uhry returns to the well-trod ground of his other overrated drama, Driving Miss Daisy, which also focused on the carefully drawn caste systems of wealthy Jewish families in Georgia before, during and after WW II.
The families of Ballyhoo include two widowed sisters-in-law, the Dixie doyenne Boo Levy (Sue Loncar) and slightly daffy Reba Freitag (Cindee Mayfield), who share a large family home with an unmarried brother, Adolph (Ted Wold), and two college-age daughters, Boo's flighty LaLa (Renee Krapff) and Reba's smart, lovely Sunny (Elizabeth Van Winkle). Sunny's an Ivy Leaguer with shiksa features. LaLa's a dropout, having been blackballed during rush, probably for looking "too Jewish." More than once Boo mentions their address on Atlanta's Haversham Drive--a too obvious hint that she has great expectations for the desperate, insecure LaLa.
In the winter of 1939, two events have the Freitag and Levy women in a tizzy. Gone with the Wind has just premiered in Atlanta (a special obsession of LaLa's), and the Jewish society gala of the year, a week of parties known as Ballyhoo, looms just days away. Boo, determined to get LaLa a date with the right kind of Jewish boy, sets her up with Peachy Weil (James Gilbert), a redheaded tummler from a good Louisiana home. Sunny, home from Wellesley, cares little for the hip-hooray of Ballyhoo until she meets Uncle Adolph's new employee, Joe Farkas (Halim Jabbour), a handsome, Brooklyn-born Jew of Russian descent. He's puzzled at the family's ignorance of their religion and hurt to feel like an outcast among them. When Boo angrily calls him a "kike," the word resounds like a rifle shot.
The plats thickens when Adolph and Boo fight over the kids' romance (Adolph thinks Joe is a mensch). Sunny and Joe break up and make up after the fancy Ballyhoo ball. LaLa has Peachy singing her tune, but we soon realize she's worth 10 of this little pisher.
The happy ending is telegraphed almost before the tickets are torn. The Last Night of Ballyhoo is predictable from word one. That this work won the 1997 Tony Award for best play, beating Horton Foote's The Young Man from Atlanta, a similarly soggy effort about yet another Southern family wrestling with prejudice, is a hint at how bad the Foote play stank and serves as further evidence of the sorry state of American playwriting.
Long before the sentimental final scene of Ballyhoo, with all the characters sharing a traditional Shabbat meal by candlelight, we can see the tableau coming. And at this group's Sabbath table, the matzoh, like Uhry's Southern-fried dialogue, is apt to be drizzled with sticky molasses.
Between Buford and Ballyhoo, the latter offers the more polished and traditional evening of theater. This is Contemporary Theatre's first show in its home base, a renovated two-story church with wooden floors and stained glass windows. The lovely set elements--sprawling, well-appointed living and dining rooms, a balcony for the lovers to retreat to--are so solidly integrated, you'd think this company had been performing there for years.
Director Jamie Baker Knapp also has assembled a strong cast, including two of Dallas' best character actors, Mayfield and Wold, and three promising young newcomers, Krapff, Van Winkle and Gilbert (Jabbour trips on his accent, which sounds more Irish than Brooklynese). Mayfield gives an especially nuanced performance as the widowed Reba, whose every utterance is an apology for some imagined slight. She's the heart of the family, though her kin probably don't realize that her talent for crocheting is superseded only by her gift for keeping the family from unraveling.
With this good ensemble, it's too bad Uhry's play is so unrelentingly banal. A pushy widow in the Deep South, a self-conscious daughter who quits school rather than face ridicule, a handsome gentleman caller who might be marriage material--characters like these make for a great drama seething with subtext about Southern mores and intolerance toward "otherness." But that play is Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie. Alfred Uhry takes the same characters and soaks them in formulaic mush. Where Williams wrote poetry, Uhry types easy-to-forget chitter-chatter. Williams gave us Greek tragedy set in the 20th century. Uhry offers up Archie Bunker meets The Golden Girls, with a premise as wobbly and transparent as one of Laura Wingfield's little glass unicorns.
Contemporary Theatre's actors grant their roles more weight, dignity and grace than Uhry's silly, cliche-filled script probably deserves. It's a symptom of where the Dallas theater scene is right now. Stages are brimming with excellent performances in fair-to-middlin' plays like Ballyhoo and Buford Gomez. Only Theatre Three's stunning Copenhagen (directed by Rene Moreno, who also directed Buford, what a comedown) offers audiences extraordinary writing equally matched by skillful acting. Intolerable.
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