The Last Night of Ballyhoo

by Alfred Uhry

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Critical Overview

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The Last Night of Ballyhoo was originally commissioned by the Alliance Theatre Company for pre sentation at Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Arts Festival. It immediately drew an appreciative audience, including Michael Sommers, who introduced the play to the American Theater Critics Association (ACTA) prize-awarding committee. According to Sommers, The Last Night of Ballyhoo was full of ‘‘tasty regional talk, seriocomic situations, and well-crafted realistic form.’’ The Last Night of Ballyhoo went on to win an ACTA citation as an outstanding new play.

In 1997, The Last Night of Ballyhoo opened on Broadway, and the majority of theater critics responded as favorably as earlier audiences had. Greg Evans called it a ‘‘winning new play’’ in Variety and made special note of the ‘‘wonderfully crafted script.’’ Richard Zoglin pointed out in Time, ‘‘Uhry juggles a lot of elements with no evident strain, creating a believable family that seems both quirky and emblematic.’’ Edward J. Mattimoe wrote in America of the drama’s pathos, calling it a ‘‘human comedy,’’ one that ends in both laughter and tears. The Last Night of Ballyhoo won a Tony Award for the best play of the 1997 season.

Uhry had first come to national attention ten years earlier, with his prize-winning Driving Miss Daisy. The Last Night of Ballyhoo bore certain resemblance to the earlier play; it too was set in Atlanta among upper-class Jews. The Last Night of Ballyhoo also reunited crucial members of Driving Miss Daisy—playwright, actor, and director—so it is not surprising that The Last Night of Ballyhoo would be compared to its predecessor. Like the earlier play, wrote Don Shewey in American Theatre, ‘‘it operates by stealth, adopting a disarmingly conventional form to tell a story we haven’t quite heard before.’’ Evans agreed that, with its ‘‘abundant humor’’ and ‘‘laugh-provoking dialogue,’’ The Last Night of Ballyhoo was ‘‘a more than worthy successor’’ to Driving Miss Daisy. To Zoglin, The Last Night of Ballyhoo was actually superior, ‘‘richer, more textured than the rather schematic Miss Daisy.’’

Critics also responded to what Sommers called ‘‘the dark central issue the play so winningly illuminates’’: the treacherous place of Jews within a Christian society. According to Zoglin’s analysis, the Levy and Freitag family is forced into a ‘‘tricky dance of assimilation and accommodation.’’ Because of their religious background, the family experiences discrimination, yet they also discriminate against those Jews they deem to be of lower quality. Mattimoe noted, ‘‘[T]here are enough unsettling comments about Jewish people—made by Jewish people—to show that any ethnic group, once put down absorbs some of the negativity themselves.’’ More than one critic commented on the audience’s shocked response to Boo Levy’s use of the word ‘‘kike.’’ This very real discomfort reflects the unsettling facts of discrimination. Yet, as Shewey wrote, ‘‘Part of the triumph of The Last Night of Ballyhoo is that Uhry allows ethical dilemmas and class tensions to arise without turning his characters into stick figures or the drama into a predetermined ‘issue’ play.’’

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Essays and Criticism