ALFRED UHRY AND THE POLITICS OF IDENTITY
We love Broadway for the spectacle and the Big Event, but it is refreshing, even exhilarating, to see a truly good play. To be caught in the rhythms of ordinary conversation and the attraction to well-crafted characters is such a rarity these days that a wonderful play like Alfred Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo comes as something of a revelation.
Bigotry and the politics of identity are common themes in the theatre today. They are the central questions in American discourse. In his subtly crafted new play, Alfred Uhry explores a more complex bigotry: the disdain of certain members of a group toward "the other kind," in this case, German and Russian Jews in the elaborate hierarchy of Atlanta Society. A difficult undercurrent for what turns out to be a heart-tugging romantic comedy, but in Uhry's sure hand, it works.
It's 1939, and the Freitag family is preparing for "the most important event in the history of Atlanta": Gone With the Wind is about to open. The premiere can't come at a better time: the upper class of Atlanta Jewish Society is preparing for the yearly social dance, The Ballyhoo. "That Hitler business" in Poland seems so far away.
Uhry creates an immediately interesting dynamic in this upper class family. Owner of a successful bedding company, confirmed bachelor Adolph Freitag lives with his two sisters, Reba and Boo, each a widow. Each of his sisters has a daughter, Sunny and Lala. The opulent living room of the Freitag's house seems full to the brim with ghosts and thinly veiled regrets. Although Uhry's comic sense never fails - the play is very funny - there is an inescapable sadness just under the surface of this family's life. As the aptly named Sunny returns from Wellesly College, she can't help but be drawn in. Lala has already left college because her aggressive humor doesn't fit in with the "Southern Jewish Grapevine." Picking over the sores of the past, the two cousins bicker over what they wore to their father's funerals just as their mothers argue over pot roast recipes.
Into this world comes Joe Farkas, like a strong breeze through a musty attic, holding Sunny a lifeline. "I seem to be a rare bird down here," he says, and he's right. A New Yorker, come South to work with Adolph, Joe is of Russian Jewish descent. Joe is proud of who he is, and not afraid to say it. This puts him at odds with most of the Atlanta Jewish gentry.
The satirist Kurt Tucholsky wrote: "I left Judaism in 1915, not realizing that this simply can not be done." The characters in "Ballyhoo" certainly give it a good try. With names like Lala, Sunny, and Boo (as the Rabbi in Angels in America says, "These are names for Jewish children?"), the German bred Jews of the upper class Atlanta society try their best to hide their pasts.
To them, Christmas is only an American holiday, "like Halloween," and Passover prayers ("Now, they have that in the Spring, don't they?") are so much "ishkabibble." The play opens with Lala gaily decorating a Christmas tree. Sunny puts the whole society of the Atlanta Jewish gentry into a nutshell when she describes the Ballyhoo as a group of people "wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians." When Joe innocently asks, "Are you people really Jewish?" it gets a big laugh.
With this inherent dishonesty (another Southern playwright called it "mendacity") comes rules about who's in and who's out. In the Freitag/Levy house, the keeper of the rules is Boo. When she tells her daughter, "We may not be lucky and we may not be pretty, but we are not weak people," she seems to bring up a lifetime of little battles and hidden disappointments.
Boo has the sharp ear of a bigot: "Just where in New York do you come from?" she asks Joe after hearing his voice, and gives a snide nod when he replies, "Eastern Parkway." For Boo and the society she represents, where you're from is more important than who you are, and there is no question: his clothes, his face, his voice, and his manner, all label Joe as an outsider, the "other kind" of Jew, whose descendants were born "East of the Elb." As with most prejudice, no one really knows why or how it all began ("Why are they the other kind?" "They just are..."), but for Boo, the lines are drawn. When she tells Adolph "that kike you hired has no manners," it's like a slap in the face to the audience.
Joe and Sunny ignore the rules, and it's love at first sight. Their honest romance bubbles through the play; Uhry has said that he's telling the story of how his own parents met with Joe and Sunny. Uhry remembers the lessons of 1930s and 40s comedies: friendship is sexy. Sunny and Joe's intimate banter is reminiscent of Jimmy Stewart and Carol Lombard in "Made for Each Other" (1938). We root for them from the beginning, and gentle laughter ripples through the audience when they finally kiss.
The play ends with a bittersweet tug at our hearts and our hindsight. It's not giving anything away to say that Joe and Sunny get together. (Otherwise, where would Alfred Uhry be?) But we see their happiness and Sunny's final dream of her family sitting down to Sabbath dinner through a dark glass. We know that the war and the Holocaust to come cannot help but color the lives of these characters we've come to feel for. It's the strength of this quietly powerful work that our bitter hindsight enhances our enjoyment. As we begin the new millennium, the questions Uhry raises, about bigotry and the politics of identity, are still with us. But, fortunately, so is Sunny's dream of a unified table.