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TVA's "Last Night of Ballyhoo" finds the powerful little play wrapped up in the distracting, ineffectual one. 

About "Last Night"

Tucked inside Alfred Uhry's "The Last Night of Ballyhoo," currently at TheatreVirginia, is a play with as much emotional clarity and honesty as Uhry's first big success, "Driving Miss Daisy." In this small, quiet play, a young Jewish boy from New York meets a young Jewish girl from Atlanta just before the outbreak of World War II. They struggle to reconcile their different backgrounds as they begin to fall in love, assisted along the way by the girl's well-meaning uncle. It's an intimate drama, filled with sweet and tender humor, a couple of heart-rending misunderstandings and a resolution that satisfies on several different levels.

Uhry wrote this powerful little play, but then he stuffed it inside a loud, two-dimensional wrapper that unfortunately takes up a great deal of "Ballyhoo." This distracting interference comes in the form of a mother and daughter who quibble and bicker continuously. While the bluster of their relationship threatens to overwhelm the play, in the preview performance I saw at TVA, the courtship of the young couple won out, providing a buoyant center that kept the show from going under.

It's December of 1939 in Atlanta as "Ballyhoo" opens. Lala Levy (Sarah Bragin) is decorating a Christmas tree and dreaming about attending the premiere of the just-released "Gone With the Wind." Enter Lala's mom, Boo (Barbara Speigel), who browbeats her daughter relentlessly, particularly about her lack of a date for Ballyhoo, the social event of the season for southern Jews. In these early scenes, you can see Bragin trying — with occasional success — to give some texture to her clichéd character. But Speigel operates on only one level, generally nervous and loud.

Another half-hour into the play, we meet Lala's cousin, Sunny, on a train headed home from Wellesley. As expertly played by Emma Roberts, Sunny is a breath of fresh air that infuses this production with energy. Sunny soon meets Joe (Daniel Weiss), a new business assistant working with Uncle Adolph, and the dance of love begins. And a fine dance it is — Roberts and Weiss have a palpable onstage chemistry and, with the assistance of director George Black, perfectly replicate the cadences of young suitors.

Sunny and Joe end up at the climactic Ballyhoo dance with Lala and Peachy Weil, a rambunctious member of a respected Louisiana family. Rob Grader's over-the-top portrayal of Peachy is a welcome shot in the arm late in the second act. At Ballyhoo, the undercurrent of Jew vs. Jew prejudice that runs through the play comes to the forefront, propelling the two couples toward unexpected outcomes.

As usual, TheatreVirginia has outfitted this production fabulously well. The opulent scenic design by Austin K. Sanderson in particular is full of interesting details, such as stained-glass windows and an intricately tiled stairway. In ancillary roles, both David Sennet as Uncle Adolph and Helen Hedman as Sunny's mother get the best of Uhry's one-liners and ably move the plot along when needed. But as with everything else in this production, they do their best work in support of Joe and Sunny, the lovers who make up the robust heart of this only partially fulfilling
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