Meshugge and Spice

That fat Christmas tree in the parlor is the first hint that things aren't exactly kosher in the Levy/Freitag family. In Alfred Uhry's light and likable play The Last Night of Ballyhoo, set in 1939 Atlanta, the Levys and Freitags celebrate the Nativity, hold Easter egg hunts and aren't exactly sure when Passover is. They're Jewish, all right; just not too Jewish.

A Hanukkah bush is more than a symbol of assimilation for this bunch—it's camouflage. Well-to-do and far enough removed from their German-Jewish forebears not to care much about the gathering storm abroad, they bristle at their outsider status among the debutante set of the Deep South. Jews are tolerated by the neighbors on tony Habersham Road but are kept at a safe remove.

Ballyhoo is a pleasant if not particularly profound look at a clash of cultures and the end of an era. Not too deep down, the Freitags and Levys harbor some seriously bigoted ideas of their own, mostly about the "other kind" of Jews from Eastern Europe. The extended family, sharing a large two-story house, get all meshugge when Wellesley-educated daughter Sunny Freitag (Jennifer Pasion) falls for Brooklyn-born Joe Farkas (Andrews W. Cope), an employee at her uncle's mattress company. Joe's of Russian descent, the "other kind" unwelcome even at Atlanta's Jewish country club, where intra-ethnic discrimination reigns. A genial kid with puppy-dog charm, Joe seems baffled by Sunny's rejection of Jewish traditions. In his eyes, she might as well be Episcopalian.

Two other running themes intersect in this 1996 play, Uhry's second after his enormously successful Driving Miss Daisy, which covered some of the same ground. The title refers to the waning days of Atlanta's Jewish cotillions, a series of formal parties known collectively as "Ballyhoo." Girls fretted about getting dates to the fancy Christmastime dances, and boys used the events to scout suitable wives. All that is set against the hoop-skirted hullabaloo surrounding the December 15, 1939, premiere in the city of the movie Gone With the Wind, another story of a disappearing way of life among wealthy Southerners.

Contemporary Theatre of Dallas first staged Ballyhoo in 2003. If it seems too soon for a return engagement, well, the schedule at this theater just off Lower Greenville Avenue reflects the whims and taste of the company's founder and artistic director, actress Sue Loncar. She liked playing Ballyhoo's no-nonsense matriarch Boo Levy three years ago, and by dingies, if she wants to play it again, she will. And does. Pretty well, in fact. Director Cheryl Denson has succeeded at tightening up some, though not all, of Loncar's tendencies toward exaggerated gestures, even if she can't deglamorize her enough to make her completely believable as a Dixie doyenne described as "the Jewish Tallulah Bankhead."

Why see Ballyhoo, either again or for the first time? The best reason at CTD is the winsome performance by Cope, playing the gefilte-fish out of water, Joe Farkas. Cope does the Brooklyn thing the way Matthew Broderick did in Neil Simon's "Eugene Jerome trilogy," so much so that some savvy producer hereabouts ought to sign him up to star in a festival of the nostalgic comedies (Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound). He's smooth at underplaying while everyone else is shrieking hysterically.

Ginger Goldman is the next-best reason. Cast in the showy part of Lala Levy, Boo's giggly, GWTW-obsessed daughter, Goldman dominates the production—not hard to do costumed in a voluminous replica of Scarlett O'Hara's "barbecue dress." Think Kyra Sedgwick with a touch of Kathy Griffin and you've got Goldman, a comedic whirligig of a girl who boosts Uhry's talkier sections of the play with the oomph of a B-12 shot in the tuchus.

Ballyhoo doesn't promise belly laughs, but it is a sweet play about nice people made to see things a little differently thanks to a newcomer in their midst. Lessons are learned, hugs are shared and, in the end, a family filled with self-hatred finally accepts themselves for who they are. They become Jewish Waltons.

Dim All the Lights, Theatre Quorum's new production now at the Bath House Cultural Center, contains the bones of a terrific play. Too bad so much of the meat has been carved away.

Angela Wilson's script has undergone extensive rewrites since it first was produced for this troupe in 1998 under the title The Ladies Room. The story has an unlikely premise—a man with terminal cancer carries on a six-week affair with a woman paid to keep him company—but it's based on events that really happened in the life of the playwright. Somewhere in the makeover process, however, Wilson has become too familiar with her material. The play feels like it's missing key elements, like she's assuming we know what's going on and who her characters are, even when she hasn't given us enough info.

Like, at the beginning. Dim All the Lights opens on Thanksgiving night in a louche little disco where the owner, Charlie, played by Scott A. Eckert, noodles out the chords of "Feelings" and other drippy tunes on an electric keyboard. Charlie's pal Chris, played with unembarrassed abandon by Nye Cooper, looks three sheets to the wind, flailing to the ground between barstools and drooling on himself. But he's not inebriated, he's sick. He's dying of cancer and he's gone off all his meds, including lithium for his bipolar disorder. One minute he's dancing the hustle like a manic Tony Manero. The next, he's flat on the floor, pissing himself and weeping over his estranged wife, who's never seen and is always referred to as "Jackie the whore."

There's a cute nurse named Tina (Christie Beckham) in the bar, and she seems willing to be, as she puts it to Chris, "the last person you'll ever meet." But the play instead introduces another character, Angie (Lauren Embrey), a single mother of two who is a good 10 years older than Chris and has been paid by Charlie to "date" the sick man twice a week until Christmas Eve, when Jackie the whore makes her annual phone call. Angie's job is to play up her "romance" with Chris to make Jackie jealous.

For reasons never clear in the dialogue and most definitely not depicted through any discernible chemistry between the actors, Chris falls instantly in love with dowdy Angie and she with him. Each successive scene nudges them closer to Christmas Eve and, we're pretty sure, to the moment when Chris will drop dead at Angie's feet. He seems to get sicker and sicker, but since we've never seen him in a lucid moment—something that would help the audience warm up to Chris and feel some empathy—it's hard to tell.

It's a noisy piece of melodrama, dizzy with plot stumbles and fuzzily defined relationships (for the first hour, I thought Charlie and Chris were brothers). But when the characters aren't wailing and gnashing their teeth over Chris' impending demise, Dim can be witty. Take this exchange between the guys:

Charlie: "The last time I tried fixing you up with a woman, you spit on her."

Chris: "She was on fire."

Charlie: "She was smoking."

There are lots of funny little asides. Chris agonizes that cancer has caused his memory to erase key bits of personal info, like his pet name for his penis. Then he remembers: T.J. Hooker. Trying to sweet-talk Angie, he senses that a piece of personal medical equipment under his clothes needs tending to. "After I empty my bag, I want to really get to know you," he says.

Stuff like that is choice, and would that Dim All the Lights had more of it. Instead, it buckles under the playwright's attempt to overwhelm us with torrents of dialogue when what we're craving is more meaningful storytelling. When Chris' alcoholic, domineering mother, Christine (Lisa Fairchild), blows in to scream about who's going to get her son's bank account when he dies—Jackie the whore? Angie?—it's time to turn out the lights. The party's over.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner