Achieving success, according to the old Yiddish proverb, is knowing when to do what. American playwirght Alfred Uhry has won the Tony, the Oscar and the Pulitzer Prize--and this success stems from only two plays, DRIVING MISS DAISY and THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO, which would suggest he knows exactly what to do and when to do it.
BALLYHOO is playing at South Coast Repertory and its old fashioned qualities make it seem as if the work has been around forever-- but in fact it opened on Broadway only 6 years ago. In addition, this is not the first time Southern California audiences have been exposed to the work. Rhea Perlman starred in a production at the Canyon Theater a few years back. Therefore, South Coast Rep's new staging feels a bit like a mother throwing a welcome home party for a child on winter break. Sure, it's nice to have her back, but in truth-.she's never really been away.
Of course, its understandable why any theater would want to put on Mr. Uhry's domestic comedy. From its opening line, -Jewish Christmas trees don't--have-- stars- to its reflective ending, THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO is a vertiable textbook on how to write a hit play. There is a unique setting (a Jewish household in the deep south), plenty of colorful characters, and an ovenful of nostalgia--not to mention punchy modern dialogue. In a way, it's MEET ME IN ST LOUIS as re-imagined by Neil Simon.
Certainly there are worse things. South Coast Rep is one of America's finest regional theaters-- so this BALLYHOO is a slice of nostalgia that goes down easy. The set is handsome and the direction swift and graceful. Southern accents are consistant--rarely overstated--and the acting is uniformly professional. Kandis Chappell is appropiately hideous as the overbearing mother, but thankfully she never takes the part down the road of cariacture. The result is that the relationship with her daughter Lala, played by Blair Sams, comes across as touchingly genuine. However it is Richard Doyle who impresses most with his quiet, dignified portrayal of Adolph. It is not a particulaly subtle part (given the character's name and the play's 1939 setting), but Doyle makes the inner workings of the role burn with desire, while always maintaining the cool demeanor of a southern aristocrat.
There are many successful aspects of South Coast's production, but ultimately one must come back to the what and the when. Yes, BALLYHOO is a fun play and one that will no doubt bring in crowds--but aren't there plenty of American works NOT seen in decades with these same qualities. Nothing in this production seems to indicate a desire to link the themes of the play with current world events-and none of Uhry's ideas are incendiary enough on their own to spark any relevance beyond the walls of the well furnished set. This, combined with Uhry's reliance on the smooth, almost sit-com like, humor of one-liners and snappy comebacks, make South Coast's version of BALLYHOO seem less like a provocative theatrical revival and more like a amiable televison re-run.
THE LAST NIGHT OF BALLYHOO plays at the Segerstom Stage in Costa Mesa through October 5th.
This is James Taylor with Theater Talk for KCRW