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Oh Fiddle-Dee-Dee

They-ahs Suh-thun' hus-pee-tal-uh-tee at Playhouse, y'aw-ll.

by CHRIS DAVIS

s it possible there is a play under the sun that can make me long for the schmaltzy feel-goodisms of Alfred Uhry's geriatric buddy drama Driving Miss Daisy? Perhaps one. After witnessing Uhry's The Last Night of Ballyhoo at Playhouse on the Square, I almost look forward to the long haul out to Germantown Community Theatre this weekend to hear his famous Miss D. declare (again and again and again), "Hoke, you're my best friend." Wooguh!

Remember the production problems that The Wizard of Oz and its tell-all counterpart Under the Rainbow had because the little people playing the munchkins took twice as long to move from place to place as did the people of average stature? A similar and equally disastrous retardation affects plays when the actors lay the Southern dialects on as thick as concrete spread with a paper knife -- when the word premiere becomes "pree-mee-ah." During Ballyhoo's intermission at least half a dozen spectators debated whether or not they wanted to leave due to the play's ponderous pace, and flight was beating the dog out of fight. Southern dialects are appropriate to Ballyhoo, but actors, take note: When heated up, honey can pour as fast as slops from the bucket.

Ballyhoo takes place in 1939 Atlanta, where Gone With the Wind is about to premiere, fostering dreams of celebrity in many a P.Y.T. Christmas is around the corner, and the eyes of the world are focused on Hitler's activity in Poland. Against this backdrop Uhry presents the family Freitag, two widowed sisters-in-law living with a henpecked brother and their two college-aged daughters. The Freitags are proud to be one of two Jewish families living on ritzy Habersham Road and are quick to note that the other one lives down at the end of town where things are all "tacky." They are the crème de la crème of Southern Jewish society -- they even have a Christmas tree.

The action revolves around finding Lala (a poor young spinster who couldn't make Sigma Tau Delta at Michigan) a date to Ballyhoo, the biggest event of their social season. Enter Joe Farkas, a Brooklyn Jew and hot-shot employee at the family's bedding company. Lala pegs Joe as the one who will take her to Ballyhoo, but he only has eyes for her cousin Sunny, a Wellesley girl with socialist tendencies. There are other problems. The Freitags are German Jews, and Joe's family comes from east of the Elbe -- he's one of "the other kind." The Frietags have abandoned their faith's traditions in favor of social events (like Ballyhoo) and American holidays (like Christmas). Joe still believes in the "boring" Hebrew rituals, thus becoming the victim of prejudice from people with whom he shares a common faith. Before the play is through, however, you can bet your yarmulke that everything will be set straight: Jack shall have Jill, naught shall go ill, and the entire family will stand in silhouette reciting Hebrew prayers -- united as a loving family in front of the Christmas tree.

As the displaced Brooklynite, Mitch Maguire is compelling, and he is well supported by Kevin Jones (Peachy Weil), Dave Landis (Uncle Adolph Freitag), and Jo Lynn Palmer (Reba Freitag). It is a bit distressing to see the wily Palmer become pigeonholed as a dithering old marm, and I might complain further were she not so darn good at it.

As the overbearing Boo Levy (née Freitag), M. Michele Somers hits only one note and she hits it hard and often. Boo is the sort of class-conscious steel magnolia that Flannery O'Connor took such delight in disemboweling and a wealthy literary relation to Tennessee Williams' tragic shrew Amanda Wingfield. Somers seems to have given up the struggle between Boo's learned manners and spiteful nature, choosing instead to just let the bitch rage.

As Lala, Boo's misfit daughter, Tiffany Yates is (in every way) too much. The tall, thin Yates seems to dwarf the rest of the cast, which could have gone a long way to explaining her social awkwardness had this been taken into account when the characters' relationships were being developed. To add insult to altitude, she looks five years older than her mother, her dialect out-Scarletts Scarlett, long before the character has even seen Gone With the Wind, and only her emotional honesty keeps Yates from becoming a cartoon.

Where are our Southern writers? Poor Tennessee is in the ground, and Beth Henley's gone all-Hollywood on us. What happened to the soft-voiced yarn-spinners, the Confederate sons and daughters of Chekhov whose stories moved us seemingly by accident? Are manipulative word doctors, like Uhry, who keep swatting our knees with sledge-hammers just to see if we will cry, all the South has left? I weep.


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