To gauge the psychic distance between gawky Lala Levy and her domineering mother, Boo, consider their way with a telephone. Ordered by mom to call an eligible bachelor, the 20-something Lala does so gingerly, her wide eyes sullen and apprehensive; almost immediately, she hangs up, so swiftly you’d think the phone were searing hot. Then Boo takes over, dialing the operator with near-regal assurance; when the call connects, she breaks into a steely, driven and entitled smile.
Such telling moments abound in the Theater J production of “The Last Night of Ballyhoo,” Alfred Uhry’s comedy about an elite Jewish family in 1939 Atlanta. Director Amber Paige McGinnis’s staging boasts a terrific cast, including Shayna Blass as Lala and Susan Rome as Boo. Occasionally, the entertainment veers between naturalistic and broader comedy in a manner that’s not entirely smooth. In general, however, it’s both fun and absorbing to hang out with these quirky and sharply etched characters, whose conflicts and power plays nod at serious themes.
In December 1939, Boo is crusading to get Lala a date to Ballyhoo, a formal dance patronized by their social circle, Atlanta’s German Jewish elite. When Boo’s brother, Adolph Freitag (Sasha Olinick), introduces his new employee, Joe Farkas (Zack Powell), Lala is smitten, but Joe only has eyes for Lala’s cousin, Sunny (Madeline Rose Burrows). In any case, Joe’s future with the family is dicey, given that the Ballyhoo set largely looks down on Jews like Joe, who is of Eastern European heritage.
The swanky mansion-interior set, with its brilliantly decorated Christmas tree, speaks volumes about the assimilated household’s social and cultural assumptions. In the background, behind grand white pillars, hang “Gone With the Wind” movie posters and related historic photos — allusions to the film’s 1939 Atlanta premiere, with which Lala is obsessed. No surprise when she chooses a Ballyhoo dress that’s the spitting image of a Scarlett O’Hara gown. (Daniel Conway is scenic designer; Kelsey Hunt designed the costumes.)
The visuals are spiffy, but it’s the performances that are the real deluxe items here. Olinick is marvelous as the jovially sarcastic Adolph, often seen sneaking food or snoozing in an armchair, unless he’s gloomily processing the ominous news out of Europe. Powell channels Joe’s decency and smarts, making it clear why the young man feels impelled to talk about Jewishness and integrity with Sunny.
Julie-Ann Elliott aces the sweet flakiness of Sunny’s mother, Reba Freitag, and Josh Adams is suitably obnoxious as a snobbish visitor from Louisiana. A restless figure in a tight hairdo, Rome’s Boo makes every withering quip count. “Clark Gable is probably not going to ask you to Ballyhoo,” she observes acidly to Lala.
Now and then — as when Lala makes a grand exit, at the end of Act 1 — the tale seems to lurch from relatively naturalistic humor to an exaggerated kind. Some directorial tinkering could probably fix such matters and make this “Ballyhoo” yet more graceful on the dance floor.
The Last Night of Ballyhoo, by Alfred Uhry. Directed by Amber Paige McGinnis; lighting design, Colin K. Bills; sound, Justin Schmitz; props, Timothy J. Jones. About 2 hours 20 minutes. Tickets: $30-$69. Through Dec. 31 at Theater J, 1529 16th St. NW. Call 202-777-3210 or visit theaterj.org .