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The Last Night of Ballyhoo

at the Mercury Theater

Now Dig This...The Terry Southern Show!

Prop Theatre Group

at the Garage at Steppenwolf

By Albert Williams

Alfred Uhry isn't exactly a prolific playwright. A decade passed between the 1987 off-Broadway smash Driving Miss Daisy and his next stage effort, The Last Night of Ballyhoo. But it was worth the wait. Like its predecessor, Uhry's witty, touching Broadway hit gently but unsentimentally strokes viewers' emotional nerve endings, lingering in the mind long after the play is over. Though like Daisy it's set in Uhry's hometown of Atlanta, Ballyhoo--now receiving its Chicago premiere from producers Michael Cullen and Sheila Henaghan--is hardly a rehash of the earlier work. Daisy is a lean, almost minimalist one-act, a series of vignettes tracing the evolving relationship of an elderly Jewish widow and her black chauffeur over 20 years; Ballyhoo is a traditional two-act comedy-drama that takes place over a relatively short period of time. Where Daisy has only three characters (Daisy, her driver, Hoke, and her boisterous businessman son), Ballyhoo explores the complex dynamics among an extended family of five and two young men who enter their lives. And where Daisy focuses on subtle tectonic shifts in racial attitudes in the 1950s and '60s, Ballyhoo examines the prejudices and pretensions of southern Jews' relationships with each other in the late '30s.

Uhry has set his story during the Christmas season of 1939--a landmark year in American culture as well as in world history. It was in 1939 that The Little Foxes, Lillian Hellman's tale of a rapacious Jewish family in the turn-of-the-century south, took Broadway by storm; Tallulah Bankhead starred in a role based on Hellman's own grandmother. That same year another southern-bred playwright, little-known newcomer Tennessee Williams, won his first serious recognition with a quartet of one-acts collectively called "American Blues," though it would be another six years before his autobiographical memory play The Glass Menagerie established him as a major artist. But the work that dominated audiences' attention in 1939 wasn't a play but a movie--the screen version of Margaret Mitchell's epic Civil War potboiler Gone With the Wind, whose December 15 world premiere in Atlanta pushed news of Hitler's war in Europe off the front pages of local newspapers.

Ballyhoo resonates with all these influences. Like Hellman, Uhry is a southern Jew who draws on his own family history--though nothing in the play suggests the Uhry clan was anything like Hellman's venal ancestors. The family here more closely recalls the gentile gentry of Gone With the Wind or the impoverished Episcopalians of The Glass Menagerie. Ballyhoo's Boo Levy, a middle-aged widow, frets over her daughter Lala with the same angry obsessiveness that Menagerie's matriarch Amanda Wingfield does over "painfully shy" Laura. But there's nothing shy about Lala: flighty and flirtatious, she dreams of being the next Margaret Mitchell and behaves like Scarlett O'Hara, right down to the catchphrase "fiddle-dee-dee" and her white, green-sashed hoop skirt. Where Scarlett seethed with jealous resentment of her gentle, self-sacrificing rival Melanie, Lala bristles at the seemingly favored status afforded her brainy, beautiful cousin, Sunny Freitag, whose sweet, somewhat dim mother, Reba, was married to Boo's late brother.

The four women live together with Boo's bachelor brother, Adolph, owner of a successful bedding company. But the family's material comfort (set designer Robert Odorisio has transformed the stage into the living and dining room of a bungalow designed in stucco-walled Spanish-Moorish style) is at odds with their often strained interactions. Adolph may be Boo's brother, but he seems to care more for Reba and Sunny than he does for Boo and Lala. Boo competes with her sister-in-law over everything from pot roast recipes to the proper way to decorate a Christmas tree ("Christmas is just another American holiday if you can leave out all that silly business about Jesus," she insists). Boo also attempts to squelch her daughter's ridiculous dreams of becoming a novelist, insisting that Lala settle down to the business of finding a mate who will elevate her socially. The starting point is securing a date for Ballyhoo, the social event of the season for southern Jews of German ancestry like the Freitags, who try to brush off discrimination by Christian country clubs while turning their own brand of snobbery on less assimilated eastern European Jews.

When Adolph invites a young salesman from his firm over to the house, Lala takes an immediate fancy to him. But Boo looks down on the Brooklyn-bred Joe Farkas as a "New York Yid," not at all the right type for her daughter. Not that Joe minds; he's far more attracted to Sunny, who's home on vacation from Wellesley. While Joe woos Sunny with Adolph's evident approval, Boo arranges for Lala to be taken to Ballyhoo by Peachy Weil, the eminently eligible son of a well-off family. Peachy's a smug, shallow scalawag with flaming red hair and a repertoire of raunchy wisecracks; we know instantly that this gentleman caller will eventually break Lala's heart, though Boo and Lala can't seem to see it--or don't want to.

Joe, meanwhile, is perplexed by the social gulf between him and Sunny as well as by Sunny's lack of connection to her Jewish roots; she doesn't even know the difference between Hebrew and Yiddish, having grown up in a household that paid more attention to Christmas trees than Hanukkah candles. The twisting path the couple travel as their love overcomes their misunderstandings and as Joe brings Sunny a new awareness of her Jewish identity constitutes the play's touching final portion.

Carmen Roman and Barbara E. Robertson, two of Chicago's finest actresses, play Boo and Reba. Local musical-theater veteran Joel Hatch is Adolph, while four gifted young newcomers--Laura Lamson, Eli Goodman, Samantha Albert, and Kevin Stark--play Sunny, Joe, Lala, and Peachy respectively. It's a fine ensemble, though they could dig deeper into the material; director Bob E. Gasper was stage manager for Ballyhoo on Broadway, and unfortunately this production sometimes feels like a stage manager's efficient, by-the-book supervision of a long-running hit's replacement cast. Still, Uhry's distinctive blend of wry observational comedy and understated poignance is well served by the talented performers and by Odorisio's excellent set, Jeff Croiter's evocative lighting, and Virgil Charles Johnson's costumes, which suit the play's period and characters to perfection.

Unlike Uhry, novelist and screenwriter Terry Southern was very prolific--not to mention outrageous, obscene, blasphemous, scatological, and as politically incorrect as you could imagine. Southern, who died in 1995 at the age of 70, specialized in scathing satires of sexual, racial, and political hypocrisy that epitomized what was once called "sick" humor. His 1958 novel Candy, written with Mason Hoffenberg and originally published under the pseudonym Maxwell Kenton by Olympia Press, charts the erotic adventures of a nubile naif named Candy Christian as she frolics with, among others, a Mexican gardener, a perverted Greenwich Village hunchback, and her uncle (whose wife keeps a clothespin on her clitoris to trigger orgasms). Like William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch, Candy was an underground classic; adolescent hipster wannabes would secretly read the paperback in high school, hiding it behind their textbooks.

Among Southern's other novels are Blue Movie, about a world-famous filmmaker who sets out to create the ultimate porn flick (the book came out two years before Bertolucci's Last Tango in Paris), and The Magic Christian, the tale of a madcap millionaire named Guy Grand whose mission is to prove that people will do anything anywhere anytime for money--including diving for dollars in a huge vat of animal waste that Grand sets up in downtown Chicago. Southern's film credits include coauthoring the screenplays for Roger Vadim's sci-fi sex farce Barbarella, for Tony Richardson's over-the-top adaptation of Evelyn Waugh's satire of the funeral industry, The Loved One (written with Christopher Isherwood), for Easy Rider (written with Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda), and for Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece Dr. Strangelove, the tale of a mad military officer who starts a nuclear war to combat a communist conspiracy to destroy Americans' "precious bodily fluids" through fluoridation. (The script was based on a deadly serious cold war thriller, which Southern and Kubrick turned into brilliant, horrifying comedy.)

Much of Southern's work is not well-known today; fans of Easy Rider and Dr. Strangelove are not necessarily cognizant of his contributions to them. Yet he was an important figure in the counterculture of the 50s and 60s, the literary equivalent of his friend Lenny Bruce. It's laudable of Chicago playwright Charles Pike to want to foster theatergoers' awareness of Southern's life and work--and enormously brave of Nile Southern, the writer's son, to join in the project. Now Dig This...The Terry Southern Show! takes an appropriately surreal, grotesque approach to Southern's weird, wired world, interweaving scenes of his final days in a New York hospital with episodes from his fiction and films, which become the dying writer's hallucinations. Memories of his childhood as the son of a hard-drinking Texas farmer (drawn from his autobiographical story "Red Dirt Marijuana") collide with fantasies of Richard Nixon and J. Edgar Hoover (in full drag) scrutinizing Southern's FBI file. Reminiscences by Nile, Southern's ex-wife Carol, and his longtime companion Gail Gerber are juxtaposed with clips from the films and reenactments of scenes from Easy Rider. (Oddly absent is material from The Magic Christian, which Southern liked best of all his books.)

It's all very imaginative--but unfortunately it's also cluttered and often incomprehensible, unlike Southern's work, which was bizarre but precise. All but the most dedicated Southern fan will have trouble following the action without a concordance, and viewers who don't know Southern's oeuvre are likely to be utterly bewildered--which of course plays havoc with the goal of introducing Southern to a new generation. The excerpts from the stories and the out-of-context film clips seldom make sense, while the Easy Rider reenactments are an exercise in futility: who but Jack Nicholson can carry off Jack Nicholson?

Jonathan Lavan is strangely bland as the ribald Southern. The other six cast members play multiple characters--many of them, such as George Plimpton, difficult to identify unless you're in the know--switching gears under Scott Vehill's direction with a frantic energy that's sometimes infectious but other times sloppy. While Eric Lumbard strikes out as Nicholson, he's effective in other roles, among them Southern's loutish, laudanum-swilling father and Hoover's rumored companion Clyde Tolson, portrayed here as a scantily clad, dog-collared butt boy. Guy Massey makes a pretty good Dennis Hopper; he's also a startling look-alike for Nile Southern (who was in the opening-night audience) and does a cunning William Burroughs imitation in a scene from Southern's unpublished 1955 radio sketch, "Mad Man Monk," which appropriates Naked Lunch's Dr. Benway. (The sketch is due to appear in a new anthology of Southern's work that Nile Southern and Bruce Jay Friedman's son Josh--second-generation hipsters--are putting together.) Elizabeth Ledo is moving as Gail Gerber and striking in a cross-gender portrait of Southern as a boy; Maureen Michael is direct and affecting as Carol Southern; and Whit Spurgeon is buoyant but sometimes too cartoonish as Hoover and a "faggot male nurse" Southern fears will molest him.

Which brings up another problem with the show. Some of the material, which seemed so liberating in the 50s and 60s, comes off as sexist and homophobic now, at least in this chaotic presentation. Also bothersome is the near total absence of Southern's stinging racial satire--and the lack of any actors of color to pull it off. (Spurgeon's drag caricature of a Puerto Rican woman is offensive.) Confusing, overlong, and only fitfully funny, Now Dig This is an earnest mess that needs major rethinking if it's ever to achieve its purpose.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lisa Ebright.

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