Although the play is billed in the company’s season brochure as a “drama,” you’d hardly realize it to see Stage Door Players’ disproportionately comical rendition of “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Atlanta native Alfred Uhry’s nostalgic follow-up to his more widely renowned “Driving Miss Daisy.”
“Ballyhoo” takes place in 1939 Atlanta, and it opens on the very night of the city’s famous “Gone With the Wind” premiere at the Loew’s Grand movie theater — a romanticized time when people still went by names like “Boo” and “Peachy,” and when admission to this or that sorority or country club was a matter of life or death.
Larger issues eventually loom for the play’s extended Jewish family, many of them centering on the tenuous relationship between a grasping mother (Pamela Gold) and her flighty daughter (Lucy Rose Gross), and whether the girl will secure a date for the big social event of the year, the Ballyhoo cotillion dance.
With the introduction of a gentleman caller of sorts (Shaun MacLean) — plus passing references to the brewing war in Europe — Uhry soon finds an outlet for several higher-minded debates about faith and assimilation. The prospective young suitor, himself a devout Jew, is increasingly bewildered by a family that erects a Christmas tree every year but barely knows their Yiddish.
Directed by Mira Hirsch, the founding artistic director of the former Jewish Theatre of the South (which remains sorely missed some 10 years later), there’s a rushed quality to the Stage Door production that often seems better suited to a full-fledged farce than a warmhearted memoir.
So do the shrill performances she elicits from Gold and Gross, both of whom come across as one-note caricatures instead of three-dimensional people. Their frantic social-climbing antics are purely silly, lacking any sense of the urgent desperation that could have provided greater emotional grounding. By the time we finally meet the show’s real comic relief, in the form of a cloyingly vapid nebbish (poor Elliott Folds), it feels like overkill.
For his part, MacLean is comparatively agreeable (if slightly bland) as the conscientious and presumably impassioned love interest, who unwittingly finds himself caught between that ditzy debutante and her alternately reasonable and graceful cousin. She’s nicely portrayed by Maggie Birgel, and her late-breaking spiritual enlightenment gives the play a meaningfulness it definitely needs.
Best of all, rounding out the cast are two of the finer character actors in town: Ann Wilson is sweetly endearing as the other girl’s good-natured mother; and the singularly splendid veteran Jared Simon, whose stage appearances have become far too sporadic over the years, scores in the potentially thankless role of the avuncular straight man of Uhry’s dysfunctional household. (Speaking of which, Stage Door’s resident scenic designer, Chuck Welcome, contributes yet another of his impressive sets.)
Next to the high-strung histrionics of Gold and Gross, in his most memorable moment, wistfully recalling the unrequited love of his life, Simon deftly demonstrates how much more less can sometimes be.
“The Last Night of Ballyhoo”
Through Feb. 17. 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2:30 p.m. Sundays. $15-$33. North DeKalb Cultural Arts Center, 5339 Chamblee-Dunwoody Road, Dunwoody. 770-396-1726, stagedoorplayers.net.
Bottom line: Atlanta native Alfred Uhry’s family drama, unevenly played for laughs.
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