The Last Night of Ballyhoo is basically a Southern-fried, politically aware Brighton Beach Memoirs, which is to say it's funny, warmly familial, and wears its intentions brightly on its sleeve (where a play with more depth might have woven darker colors into the fabric). It's mass-market social consciousness, which bothers some people but is just fine by me; If large, moneyed groups of people are enticed to spend an evening considering the difficulties of being different, then a theater is doing its job.
The Intiman production is certainly filled with fine performances. Though Sams pushes it a bit as Lala (her energy seems more unfocused than her character's), she's certainly game, and she has our sympathy. Ballard is as smooth as ever in a role much lighter than any I've seen him in. Paulsen's loving hen and Dirickson's fierce bulldog play off each other winningly, and there's a sly, comic turn by James Garver as a slap-happy bigot.
It's the play itself that's lacking. "I try and I try and no matter what I do it shows," a frustrated Lala fumes about her awkward Jewishness, and playwright Uhry could be saying the same about his ambitions. He's reaching here to put across the deep paradoxes inherent in any group's self-hatred, but mostly everything goes soft and rides the surface. Every character gets to put across a monologue featuring a telling memory: Adolph's unrequited love, Sunny's ousting from a Gentile-only pool, etc. We're aware of what's going on from the play's opening moment, when an unironic Boo humorously scolds a tree-trimming Lala with "Jewish Christmas trees don't have stars!"
In particular, Joe, as the catalyst, is Uhry's biggest flaw. He's obviously the playwright's thematic messenger, calling into question the family's every cozy prejudice, but he's one-note as a character (especially as emphatically played by John Sloan with a slippery Brooklyn accent). Compared to the earnest Sunny (a smart, radiant Funkhouser in the evening's best performance), whose every flaw is lovingly detailed, Joe's static righteousness grows tiresome. It's a bad sign that, listening to another of Joe's tirades, you often wish he'd leave these pleasant, quirky people to their delusions.
Warner Shook's direction displays his usual craft, though it can't clear up these textual problems. Abetted by Sloan's awkward attempt, I think he falters with the young characters, most glaringly in the crucial scenes between Sunny and Joe. The actors' rhythms aren't in sync, and without any apparent chemistry, they seem to be taking dramatic swipes at each other that never connect with any force. The inevitable reunion of Sunny and Joe just feels, well, inevitable. Shook does have an obvious affection for the proceedings. The moment when Boo watches her beleaguered daughter crumple to the floor in her "Scarlett O'Goldberg" ball gown, then silently watches her pull herself together again, is deft and heartbreaking. Sams and a riveting Dirickson are right on the money, and you can feel Shook egging them on.
As ambitiously lightweight as Driving Miss Daisy, Uhry's comforting, Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a different kind of racism, The Last Night of Ballyhoo is at least a look at a time, place, and people of which most of us are unaware. I suppose the whole thing is a little corny, and it doesn't really break any new ground, but, as with Daisy, there is a beguiling sense here of our responsibility to each other. The play ends on a sentimental note--the family gathered around traditional candles--that nonetheless creates real feeling: We're imperfect, and we cower inside our ignorance, but we can learn, and hopefully we can change.