Jews are often chameleons, taking on the protective coloration of the society in which they find themselves. Sometimes their attempts to assimilate are so intense that, as a Venetian moneylender once put it, they "better the instruction."
Hyper-assimilationism underlies Alfred Uhry's enchanting "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater.
Uhry, who gave us a glimpse of Southern Jewish "aristocracy" in "Driving Miss Daisy" 10 years ago, gives a deeper glimpse of this world in "Ballyhoo." (These glimpses, by the way, are far too fascinating and entertaining to arrive at 10-year intervals.)
"Ballyhoo," which is set in 1939, refers to an annual ball held in Atlanta where young people from all the best Southern Jewish families are, as a character remarks, "dancing around wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians."
Beulah (Boo) Levy (played by Dana Ivey) is proud that her German Jewish forebears have lived in the South for more than a century. She and her brother Adolf are the only Jews on the best street in Atlanta.
Boo, a widow, is distraught that her hyper-tense daughter Lala (Jessica Hecht), who dropped out of school because she did not make the "right" sorority, has no date for Ballyhoo.
Her brother (Terry Beaver) brings home Joe (Paul Rudd), a bright young man in his office. Boo is horrified that her daughter might be attracted to a New York Jew whose family is from (shudder!) Eastern Europe.
In the same household are their widowed sister-in-law, Reba (Celia Weston), and her daughter Sunny (Arija Bareikis). Sunny goes to Wellesley, where she has apparently lost the sense of class Boo so assiduously cultivates.
Uhry mines this snobbism with great wit. Only toward the very end does he contrive a dramatic "crisis." He resolves it in less than 15 minutes, but it casts an irritating, gratuitous shadow on an otherwise entertaining evening.
Even when the comedy approaches farce, the play remains believable because Ron Logamarsino has directed his splendid cast to give an ongoing feeling of life being lived.
From the first scene, where Boo admonishes Lala for not knowing you don't put a star on top of a Jewish Christmas tree, Ivey conveys Boo's rigidity, and ultimately her desperation, consummately.
She has a brilliant foil in Weston as Reba. Weston knows how to drop the most acid remarks with perfect nonchalance. Hecht portrays high-strung Lala with just the right blend of comedy and poignance. Bareikis is utterly beguiling as Sunny.
As the long-suffering brother, Beaver gives an impressively understated but powerful comic performance. Rudd has great strength and appeal as Joe, and Stephen Langay is splendid as Lala's idiotic knight in shining armor.
The physical production adds to the wit. Under Logamarsino's direction, the bedrock of reality makes Uhry's wise comedy even funnier.
Alfred Uhry's ''Last Night of Ballyhoo,'' a comic drama about intra ethnic Jewish prejudice in Atlanta, is set in 1939, and it often feels as if it had been written then. If your mind wanders during the production (and it might), you may find yourself thinking of an alternative cast of actors, all long dead.
Spring Byington, for example, would be just right for the eccentric, slow-minded faded belle; Fay Bainter could be her snappish sister-in-law; Lionel Barrymore, no doubt, would be the droll, avuncular type; and who else but John Garfield for the role of the brash young New Yorker with a social conscience?
It's not that this honorably intentioned play, which opened last night at the Helen Hayes Theater and is directed by Ron Lagomarsino, doesn't have a perfectly competent contemporary cast, which includes the redoubtable Dana Ivey (as the snappish one, of course).
Yet there are many moments when it seems to turn into two-dimensional, scratchy black-and-white before your eyes. You keep waiting for gauzy close-ups of teary faces or for a long mood shot showing a sun rising inspiringly above a speeding train.
This is a play, after all, in which a beaming fellow tells his girl when she asks him about their future: ''Who knows, Sunshine? We got a whole lifetime to choose from!''
Other elements, it's true, set off different echoes. Much of the gently barbed, idiosyncratic Southern humor recalls a vintage episode of the television sitcom ''Designing Women'' (also set in Atlanta). The relationship between the disappointed, socially ambitious Boo (Ms. Ivey) and her fantasy-spinning misfit daughter, Lala (Jessica Hecht), evokes that of Amanda and Laura in ''The Glass Menagerie.'' And Boo, considering a lifetime of thwarted expectations, conjures a whole decade of kitchen-sink drama when she says to her bachelor brother, Adolph (Terry Beaver): ''I thought we were going to be happy when we grew up. What do you think happened?'' Adolph, for the record, has his own archetypal moment when he suppresses tears over the memory of the young woman he once loved and never spoke a word to.
Mr. Uhry's one previous play, ''Driving Miss Daisy,'' which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1988, was a modest masterpiece of obliquely rendered sentimentality and social commentary. Here the author employs much more direct and conventional means that work more blatantly to elicit laughs and tears.
''Ballyhoo'' isn't a clumsy work; on its own terms, it's a model of old-fashioned tailoring. And Mr. Uhry has a fascinating and incendiary subject in the self-hatred implicit in the social stratifications among Southern Jews, particularly given that the play is set on the eve of World War II. But the context in which he couches it can feel very treacly.
The Ballyhoo of the title is a big December social event, a series of parties that culminates in a dance at a country club whose membership is limited to the ''right kind'' of Jews. (That means their forebears came from Germany rather than Eastern Europe.)
The plot springs from the interfamilial rivalries engendered by the festivities, which coincide with the world premiere of ''Gone With the Wind'' in Atlanta. The hapless, fidgety Lala still needs a date.
Her pretty, self-assured and brainy cousin Sunny (Arija Bareikis) is already invited -- by Joe Farkas (Paul Rudd), a Brooklynite employed at her Uncle Adolph's bedding company -- and she doesn't even care about the dance itself, which she describes, in one of the play's more memorable lines, as just ''a bunch of dressed-up Jews dancing around and wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians.''
That the young women are both staying in the house in which Boo and Adolph live with their sister-in-law Reba (Celia Weston), Sunny's mother, makes for confrontational dynamite. Voices will be raised, dresses torn, tears shed and old resentments dragged from the past before the family comes to terms with its hypocrisies.
Mr. Uhry, a native of Atlanta, obviously knows the sociology of the play's world. (And John Lee Beatty's impeccably detailed set is a savvy monument to middle-class majesty.) ''Ballyhoo'' is by far most interesting in defining the muddled layers of Jewish identity among its characters.
Boo, the arbiter of such matters, amusingly explains why her family is allowed to have a Christmas tree (it's like ''a Halloween pumpkin'') as long as it doesn't have a star on top.
The desperate, lonely Lala, planning her own novel a la ''Gone With the Wind,'' tries to think of a name for a plantation, something ''elegant and pure and Protestant.'' And when the short-tempered Boo refers to Joe, who is of Russian descent and honors Passover, as a ''kike,'' the word lances the air like a poisoned arrow.
For the most part, however, the play's formulaic nature eclipses its social content, especially in its second act. The characters are drawn too neatly as sets of temperamental opposites. And under Mr. Lagomarsino's efficient but unimaginative direction, the actors, who also include Stephen Largay as Lala's fatuous suitor, fare better with the play's comedy than with its more intense emotional moments.
Ms. Ivey is funny indeed, briskly telling her daughter why she didn't get into the right sorority at college. (''I told you to think of some peppy and interesting topics to discuss.'') And Ms. Weston brings a winning, distractedly languorous comic timing to observations like, ''She makes every stitch of her clothes by hand . . . except, of course, her girdles and her brassieres.''
Even these lines have an air of deja vu, however. There's no doubting that ''Ballyhoo'' is a sincere, good-hearted work, but it almost never feels spontaneous. Despite its provocative subject, its form is the theatrical equivalent of comfort food, something for those who like their nostalgia repackaged in the guise of something new.
Everything falls into place in the beautifully appointed, uppercrust Atlanta home of Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," right down to the Jewish household's traditional Christmas tree. And the same can be said for this winning new play and the meticulous production it's been given. With its wonderfully crafted script, equally fine direction and an ensemble so good it holds its own in the towering presence of star Dana Ivey, "Ballyhoo" looks a shoo-in for a slew of Tony Award nominations come springtime.
Re-assembling the "Driving Miss Daisy" crew --- Uhry, Ivey and director Ron Lagomarsino --- "Ballyhoo" inflicts no sophomore curse on the team, and indeed is a more than worthy successor to the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Daisy." Using the manner and technique of boulevard comedy as its backdrop, "Ballyhoo" addresses some weighty issues with the same combination of ease and purpose that marked Wendy Wasserstein's "The Sisters Rosensweig" some seasons back.
In fact, "Ballyhoo" and "Rosensweig" share more than style: Both plays deal with issues of self-hatred and denial within their respective Jewish upper-class milieus. But where Wasserstein focused on expatriate New Yorkers, Uhry returns to the Atlanta that inspires his deliciously comic voice.
The year is 1939, but for Uhry's well-off Jewish assimilationists, far-off reports of Germany's threat take a distant backseat to Ballyhoo, Atlanta's annual holiday --- Christmas holiday --- ball for the young Jewish society set. In a household where the only concession to its own Judaism is a debate over whether to place a star atop the Christmas tree, Ballyhoo, with its careful appropriation of all things genteel and gentile, is a major event.
The only Jews in a posh Atlanta neighborhood, Adolph Freitag (Terry Beaver), his widowed sister Boo (short for Beulah) Levy (Ivey) and widowed sister-in-law Reba Freitag (Celia Weston) share a lovely home bought and paid for by the family's bedding business and lifetimes spent adopting the cultural persona of Southern Protestant society. Lala Levy (Jessica Hecht), Boo's 22-year-old daughter, unable to fit in at college, has returned home, where even there her dark, kinky hair and loud manner peg her as stereotypically --- and conspicuously --- Jewish.
Lala, obsessed with the Atlanta premiere of "Gone With the Wind," indulges in pipe dreams of becoming a famous novelist and heading to Hollywood, while mother Boo simply dreams of procuring Lala a date for Ballyhoo. "This might be her last chance," Boo frets, playing a crotchety Amanda Wingfield to Lala's gauche Laura.
Home for the holidays --- she's on break from Wesleyan College --- is Sunny Freitag (Arija Bareikis), Reba's blond, Aryan-featured daughter, as absent of Jewish markers as Lala is not. A long rivalry between the two girls comes to a head with the introduction of the play's gentleman caller, Joe Farkas (Paul Rudd), a handsome young Brooklyn Jew who's a favored employee of Adolph's at the bedding plant. "Nice Hanukkah bush," Joe says upon seeing the family Christmas tree, and culture clash is imminent.
So is romantic clash, of course. Proving opposites attract, Joe and Sunny fall for each other, while Lala is left with an insensitive lout of a college boy, Peachy Weil (Stephen Largay). Ballyhoo comes and goes, but not without the confrontations that have been simmering throughout the play.
What doesn't come across in synopsis is the play's abundant humor. Uhry's dialogue is packed with laughs, and the byplay between Ivey and Weston is wonderfully performed. As the rather flaky Reba, Weston handles non sequiturs with a deadpan style perfectly suited to Ivey's razor-sharp sarcasm. Beaver, as the man of the household (which is not to say head of the household), gives a nicely textured performance in a role that could have been little more than a bystander.
The younger cast members hold their own, with Hecht making a strong impression as the gawky, silly Lala. Rudd does fine by the likably no-nonsense Joe, Largay is appropriately unlikable as the oafish suitor, and Bareikis brings out the humanity that Uhry has subtly written into the WASP-wannabe Sunny.
Director Lagomarsino orchestrates all the players with dexterity, just as he does the play's alternating movements of comedy and pathos. John Lee Beatty's parlor-room set and Jane Greenwood's costumes couldn't be more efficient or pretty, and, in the case of one of Greenwood's dresses, a better punchline.
Play ends on a lovely, misty note: A brief coda could be interpreted either as real or simply imagined by Sunny. As the world and their isolated corner of it are about to change forever, these characters will need all the grace and strength they can find, and Uhry offers it gladly.