Educating Lala

Lala Levy is positively obsessed. It's 1939, and Gone with the Wind is about to premiere right in the middle of downtown Atlanta. Never mind that almost every other upper-crust German-Jewish girl in the city is getting ready for Ballyhoo, the single most important social event of the season. Lala dreams of Scarlet.

She also trims her family's Christmas tree and knows almost nothing about traditional Jewish culture, including Passover. And she certainly pays no attention to Hitler's recent invasion of Poland. It takes a young man from the north, who represents "the other kind" of Jew, the kind whose ancestors came from Eastern Europe, to teach Lala and her family what it means to embrace their own culture. Such is the lesson at the tender heart of Main Street Theater's season opener, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, the unabashedly optimistic work by Alfred Uhry (of Driving Miss Daisy fame) that won the 1997 Tony Award for best play.

The lesson is sweet, but it's the oddball characters who make this old-fashioned story so successful. Lala Levy (Kristina Short), who lives in a fantasy world of hoopskirts and Hollywood endings, can't get a date to save her life. She also has no real ambition. The flighty, self-centered girl tried college but fled home when she wasn't accepted by the sorority she rushed. On the other hand, there's the beautiful, smart Sunny Freitag (Laura Hooper), Lala's cousin. Opposite Lala in almost every way, the intensely serious Sunny comes home for the holidays from Wellesley, where she's been busy accumulating an A average. She reads Upton Sinclair and says she doesn't care one bit about Ballyhoo.

Joe Farkas, played by a romantic Dwight Clark, has just been hired on at the Freitags' mattress plant, where he's become the right-hand man to the family patriarch, Uncle Adolph (Thomas Baird). Since Lala's and Sunny's fathers are both dead, their care has fallen to their wealthy, good-hearted uncle. He manages the stress by hiding behind his newspaper and working long hours.

Sunny doesn't much care for Joe's dated ideas about acceptability. Neither does Lala or her mother, Boo (Carolyn Houston Boone) -- until Joe rejects Lala in favor of Sunny, that is. Then all sorts of nasty things get said. Joe becomes increasingly uncomfortable with how assimilated the Freitags are.

There's a little too much sugar in this production to make Uhry's ending -- potentially quite moving -- come off with as much depth as it should. Under the direction of Steve Garfinkel, Short's Lala and Houston Boone's Boo come off as cartoonish at times. Lala, for instance, stalks the telephone like a big cat; with a wide dramatic swivel of her pretty head from phone to family sitting nearby, she telegraphs the fact that she doesn't want anyone to know she's waiting for a call.

Much stronger is the more serious side of the family, which isn't nearly as interesting as Lala and her mother. Yet it is Clark's Joe who lights up the stage with the truthful intentions that Uhry's earnest writing calls for. Clark's conviction cuts right to the muscle of Uhry's tale, and there's an urgency in his carriage that hints at the horrors still to come in Europe.

Flawed as it may be, The Last Night of Ballyhoo moves quickly and easily across this easy terrain, and it makes a smart alternative to the usual Christmas fare.