The production is lushly beautiful; the pacing, impeccable; the music between scenes, splendid; the acting, a delight in every detail. And the warm, piquant humor in this Jewish family drama has a comforting old-timey feel—like the fun pleasure one could have watching a family comedy series on television back in the day when there were only three networks. How funny their foibles! How witty their one-liners! Aren’t those characters just a stitch? Let’s be sure to tune in again next week.
So goes the very satisfying surface of Alfred Uhry’s Tony Award–winning The Last Night of Ballyhoo, just opened at Theater J in a production directed with magnificent precision by Amber Paige McGinnis. The year is 1939, and the place is the lavishly tasteful home of a well-to-do German Jewish family living in Atlanta where they are well-established fixtures of Jewish high society. The word Ballyhoo in the title refers to an exclusive ball at a Jewish country club, and a great deal of the play’s attention goes to whether two young women cousins will snare dates who are suitable husband material. Abroad, Hitler has just marched into Poland. But here in this insular world of assimilation and privilege, whether to put a star atop the Christmas tree counts as conflict, and what gown to wear to the ball counts as major crisis.
If you suspect that with all this self-satisfied superficiality—hilariously as it plays—Urhy might be setting us up for something unsettling, you would be correct. Because about midway through the first of two acts, we are jolted out of our enjoyment when one Jewish character refers to another Jew as a kike. Then a Jewish character refers to another Jew as a yid. In the aftershock of those epithets, Uhry introduces an outsider, a young Jewish bachelor from Brooklyn who practices his faith with reverence and devotion. He would be a catch for either cousin. Except his heritage is Eastern European. And soon it becomes evident that Uhry has laced this comforting confection with a lacerating dissection of Jew-hating among Jews. Within the context of a family comedy with laughter crackling from scene to scene, he gives us a glimpse at the snobbish animus of German Jews toward Jews who come from “east of the Elbe.” And even we who are not Jewish are unnerved out of our amusement.
To be fair, Uhry goes easy. This is Broadway comedy, after all, not a screed. He lays out the unbecoming enmity of Jew for Jew but does not harp on it. He lets us know it’s there but does not rub it in. And his ending, though a little too pat and tacked on, does suggest sincerely that reconciliation can come through common faith.
But the sight of stigmatizing prejudice within a stigmatized group is never a sight one wishes to see, even if one does not belong to the group yet can observe it with a modicum of conscience. Once seen, such horizontal hostility cannot be unseen. And here as staged it lingers like an acrid aftertaste even though the comedic meal was sumptuous.
What this all amounts to is something very worth seeing, for Theater J’s production of The Last Night of Ballyhoo is the best kind of comedy there is: It keeps you laughing and leaves you thinking.
Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo plays through December 31, 2017, at Theater J at the Washington DC Jewish Community Center – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 777-3210, or purchase them online.