The Last Night of Ballyhoo, playwright Alfred Uhry's Tony Award-winning play at the Helen Hayes Theater, is now over a year old and still thriving. Like their predecessors, the newest cast members uphold the tradition of Southern hospitality backstage. Uhry's family is "at home" and receiving callers.
Backstage is actually located under the main stage area, where a web-like maze of exposed pipes leads to several small dressing rooms. To the right, the green and white Scarlett O'Hara knock-off frock sways with the movements of the backstage crews. To the left, the actors prepare to distribute the joy that producer Jane Harmon attributes to this production. Along with the joy comes humor.
Above production stage manager Franklin Keyser's desk is a man-made fake fur moose, which was rescued from last year's Broadway Flea Market. Dewald, named after the character Boo's dead husband, has become a "clothes horse" that changes hats with each season.
Pepe the hand-puppet, crafted by dresser Lisa Preston, mimes a few "howdy, you-alls" to fellow dresser Mickey Abbate as he strong-arms the iron to smooth out costume wrinkles.
"My grandmother taught me to iron. If a shirt wasn't done just right, " Abbate recalled, "she'd wrinkle it up and toss it back on the ironing board. Thanks to her and my supervisor Ron, I can now iron a shirt in under three minutes." Just around the bend from Abbate and his ironing board, stars Kelly Bishop and Joanne Camp are getting "wigged-up." Kelly, the "newest kid on the block," plays Boo Levy, the stridently morose and verbose mother of Lala, an obsessed Gone With The Wind devotee.
"We pincurl my hair," Bishop explained, " to give the wig an anchor, so it doesn't fly off in the middle of one of Boo's . . ."
"Tantrums?" someone suggested.
"Well she is sort of a Jewish Tallulah Bankhead. And certainly long-winded.
"She's a challenging character to play. Oh, there are moments that are fun, yet she's such an unhappy woman. It's very hard to be so unhappy in the midst of a comedy, and play it for the comedy while staying true to character".
Kelly walked into Ballyhoo right out of Neil Simon's Proposals. "I have never gone into a part so fast. I had 12 days to learn this role and be on stage. A friend had just said to me, "That part would be fabulous for you. Then I got the call."
On the other side of the dressing room wall, Joanne Camp, who portrays the good-natured Reba in the production, discusses theater rituals. "If I have any, it's that I don't read reviews until a show ends. "I'm not superstitious -- I'm one of those people who started saying the actual name of that Scottish play.' Yes, I've said the "M" word.
"If reviews are bad, it hurts my feelings. Once I was in a production of Midsummer Night's Dream, and we were all having a great time until it got terrible reviews. Suddenly we all hated doing it. I was Peaseblossom. Hey! I think I kind of am Peaseblossom. I aspire to be Peaseblossom," Camp broke off laughing.
Ballyhoo actually has a Georgia peach -- actor Todd Weeks, who plays the role of Peachy, Lala's red-tressed swain. "But I'm not a natural redhead." Weeks confessed.
Weeks auditioned for his role the first time around, but didn't get the part. "When I wanted to see the play, I was so broke, I second-acted the show. Now I'm playing the part, and I just love this play! I have a great entrance, a great exit. I enter late in the second act, and they talk about me during the whole show."
Like his colleagues, Peter Michael Goetz (Uncle Adolph) is completely smitten with Ballyhoo. "Because it's joy to do -- a good play that grows and grows and grows. By the end of the show, the audience feels likes they've really been through something with us. We leave the theater on a high, which makes it a little easier to come to back the next day. "
"Indefatigable!" That's how Lana Levine describes her character, Lala. "By the way, indefatigable is a crossword puzzle word -- since Peter's a crossword kind of guy."
"Yes, in my old age, Goetz playfully laments."
"I told him, " Levine reassured, "that scientists say people who do the puzzle don't get Alzheimer's. "
"Yes," retorted Goetz, feigning a loss of memory, "and I certainly am enjoying myself here at the Belasco Theater."
"I think Lala and Uncle Adolph are having an affair, don't you?" interjected Amy Wilson, now playing Sunny."
"What makes this play really nice," Levine continued, "as well as being a family on stage, we are a family offstage. You know, it's a big responsibility coming into a Tony Award-winning play. We all wanted to serve Mr. Uhry's words in the way the previous cast members did."
As Christopher Gartin (Sunny's beau, Joe) enters the dressing room, he's already laughing at Goetz's antics, "What's interesting is that our audiences now think they're watching television, and they're talking out loud through the whole show. Two days ago, some guy said my line, What are you reading?' just before I actually said the line. Then I said the line. Of course, the audience laughed.
"I guess they must feel like they're part of the family."