In a pleasing confluence of religion and commerce, The Cleveland Play House's The Last Night of Ballyhoo, a social comedy concerning Jews with Christmas trees (we learn that the Jewish ones are not supposed to have stars on top), opened on the eve of that jolliest of Jewish holidays, Succot, which celebrates the harvest. Playwright Alfred Uhry, who made his reputation by Driving Miss Daisy into every community theater and a lavishly awarded movie, has repeated his own bountiful harvest chronicling the idiosyncrasies of Southern Jews, that strange phenomenon of magnolia and matzo.
With Ballyhoo he takes on the task of skilled medium by summoning the ghost of the comedy of manners, an art form that has gone the way of the snood and iceman. These well-heeled plays revolved around the minutiae concerning class distinctions. Uhry, a marvelous craftsman, has freshened up the brand of boulevard entertainment that theatergoers of a couple of generations ago used to break out their tuxedos and formals to see, before heading to the Stork Club to rumba the night away.
The conventions live again. Two young women are rescued from spinsterhood just in time, both being past twenty. There is the big dance, which is a last chance to find happiness; the slightly obnoxious, overly confident fraternity boy destined to head corporations; and the slightly dangerous, out-of-town catalyst to start things boiling. In contrast, the over-forty generation lives gently blighted lives out of Chekov.
What distinguishes this play from countless scripts moldering in used bookstores is its superb slant. Instead of the de rigueur, freshly scrubbed Anglo-Saxon pheasant-under-glass, this emotional banquet is stocked with antebellum corned beef and pastrami. The play concentrates on the hierarchy of American Jews, particularly German Southern Jews in their abhorrence of ungentrified Eastern European Jews. Uhry evokes a fascinating subculture of these Southern Jews who ape Christian values and create a parallel universe with society balls and presents under the Christmas tree.
Set in Atlanta in 1939, the action revolves around the premiere of the motion picture Gone With the Wind. We see this icon of Christian popular art (made by a Jewish producer) as the great flame attracting the play's Jewish moths.
If the ending is a cheat, if the eventual matings and reconciliations seem like a compromise lifted from Bessie Mae Harper's Ladies' Home Companion story "Honeymoon for Three," we have been too happily satiated with the work's cunning eye for detail to quibble.
Uhry's script requires a lot of his performers, asking them to walk a tightrope between shtick and pathos. Mara Stephens and Daniel Pearce, who are given the best comic bits, manage to be simultaneously funny, obnoxious, and charismatic as they desperately cling to the archetypes of the Southern debutante and the brash fraternity boy. As the tender lovers, Kris Carr and Paul Cassell light up the stage with gleaming nobility and forthrightness. As the aunts and uncle, Lauren Klein, Darrie Lawrence, and Mike Hartman may not seem genuinely kosher, but the wounded humanity that they project is the real thing. Mark Nelson's direction, Bill Clarke's scene design, and James Scott's costumes all coalesce to make an ideal package.
As for those of us who happen to be Jewish, when the heroine is likened in her ball gown to Scarlett O'Goldberg, the tingle of pleasure we feel running up our necks can only be compared to winning two tickets to see Barbra Streisand's Las Vegas millennium concert.
The Chemistry of Change at Dobama is a refreshingly optimistic black comedy about a female man-hater who racks up a collection of ex-husbands for the alimony. She is also the mother of a brood of alienated, disturbed chicks. She meets with a seemingly evil but actually good-hearted carnival barker. In less time than it takes to roast a turkey, love is in bloom, and a house full of emotional basket cases has been set on a wholesome path. The best way to explain this play is to imagine You Can't Take It With You crossed with The Rainmaker, seasoned lightly with some Sam Shepard menace. Marlene Myers's play manages to be at the same time seriously funny and beguilingly strange. Yet, without its cast and director of Fort Knox-minted gold, it would offer little more substance than a junk food high. The most satisfying aspect of this production is proof positive that all our highest grade talent hasn't floated away to the Big Apple or the Windy City.
Since comparison is still the sincerest form of flattery, we'll offer each cast member and director their own personal adjective and the star they remind us most of in this romp. Larry Nehring: a pixilated Tommy Tune. Steve McCue: an exuberant Jeff Bridges. Scott Plate: a flaming Norman Bates. Paula Duesing: a wry Jeanne Moreau. Daniel McElhaney: a pop-eyed Fred Flintstone. Laura Perrotta: a simmering Annette Funicello. Director Joel Hammer: a shrewd Mike Nichols working in the sticks. Here we have a true Cleveland triumph, something to be chanted at with the fervor of Indians fever: "Go Thespians!"
Beck Center's Dames at Sea is a pioneering off-Broadway nostalgia piece which was written in 1968 and made a star of Bernadette Peters. Although it's a pastiche of Warner Brothers film musicals of the 1930s, it succeeds on its own terms. The many songs (among them, "Choo-Choo Honeymoon," "The Sailor of My Dreams," "Broadway Baby," and "Raining in My Heart") are genuinely delightful, each having a prototype in old Busby Berkeley musicals. They are sung and danced by characters with names like Dick and Ruby.
The cast is fresh, young, and unspoiled, making up what they lack in the vocal and tap departments with a plethora of charm and pep. Joe Fornadel as the sailor-boy Lucky steals the show and is what in days of yore would be referred to, with an exclamation point, as a wow. Rebecca Schaberg tweets out a ballad with the panache of a tin-pan-alley nightingale, out-taps her Ruby Keeler namesake, and has a woo-woo figure.
Director Kevin Joseph Kelly has yet to develop the slick, professional veneer of a Bob Fosse, yet he imbues the evening with a patina of gentle charm and high spirits.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo, through October 24, at the Cleveland Play House, 8500 Euclid Avenue. 216-795-7000. The Chemistry of Change, through October 9, at Dobama Theatre, 1846 Coventry Road. 216-932-6838. Dames at Sea, through October 10, at Beck Center, 17801 Detroit Avenue. 216-521-2540.
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