Malcolm Gets and Nancy Bell in Polish Joke(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Malcolm Gets and Nancy Bell in Polish Joke
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Since there is reportedly little that's new under the sun and probably not much newer behind the footlights, theatrical entries often must be judged by how well they retell an old story. In Polish Joke, David Ives puts himself to that test and comes up with mixed results.

The chestnut he's decided to roast anew is the one about learning to accept who one is and where one comes from. It's the familiar narrative that charts pits fallen into and setbacks suffered by someone who doesn't get the saying "Denial is not a river in Egypt." Attending these offerings, audiences know that the protagonist will flail around for some sense of identity and eventually will have an often hastily bestowed epiphany. The play will end happily or philosophically, or happily-philosophically.

A recent version of Basic Script #6 is Michael John LaChiusa's Little Fish, in which a woman who quits smoking doesn't know who she is now that she's no longer lighting up cigarettes. This week's entry concerns one Jasiu Sadlouski (Malcolm Gets), who wants to pull up his Polish-American roots and be anything but the person whom he feels his heritage has prepared him to be -- a janitor or, maybe, a janitor's assistant. Growing up in Chicago with his beer-swilling Uncle Roman (Richard Ziman), who at one moment tells Jasiu to rise above his beginnings and at the next unleashes a barrage of Polish jokes, the impressionable lad begins to think of himself as the latest in a line of Polish jokes that don't make him laugh.

Trying to wiggle out of his supposed destiny, Jasiu embarks on a series of forays into other worlds. In order to fit into them, he even changes his name a few times. But nothing works -- not the priesthood, which he quits before he's supposed to take vows; not the high-powered corporate job he hopes to win from an overbearing interviewer named Portia Benjamin Franklin Hamilton Yale (Nancy Bell); not his engagement to a rich Jewish girl (Bell again) with a family among whom he feels out of place; not the proposed expatriation to Ireland that he plans when he enters the Erin Go Bragh travel agency and meets its presumably Gaelic proprietor, Mr. O'Flanagan (Walter Bobbie), and Irish-to-their-jigging-shoes employees Miss MacFlanagan (Bell yet again) and Mrs. Flanagan (Nancy Opel).

Jasiu's quest is serious and he goes about it with determination. A volcano of quiet devastation, he firmly believes that if he tries hard enough, he'll find the inner peace he seeks. He means it when he attempts to ground himself in a religious order, and he seems just as intent on being a good match for Rachel. But in a play that Ives has admitted began as a "shamelessly autobiographical novel," Jasiu not only looks for himself in all the wrong places, his searches are wildly disparate in tone. Seesawing between the real and the surreal -- which is what Jasiu does, even to the point of bumping into Polish Revolutionary War hero Thaddeus Kosciuszko -- can be a problem with plays of this nature. It certainly is with this one.

Actually, "play" may be the wrong category for Polish Joke; it is more accurately described as a sketch revue with a story line. Jasiu's journey puts him among a number of characters who ring true and just as many others who ring false. He lands in situations that are only intermittently rib-tickling. His confab with the seminary priest (Bobbie again) couldn't be more down-to-earth, considering the spiritual matters under examination. When Jasiu tells the priest that he's been reading Stendhal, the rejoinder is, "I suppose one Frog novel can't hurt you." Ives hits some truths about a Jesuitical education that makes the exchange both funny and incisive.

Later, at the travel agency where Bobbie presides as Mr. O'Flanagan, Ives runs up a screamingly amusing skit by stringing together every Irish stereotype he can muster. It's the opposite end of the truth-exaggeration spectrum, but it's every bit as effective as the seminary scene. On the other hand, a sequence in a flower shop seems to have nothing to do with anything. (Does the shopkeeper ignore Jasiu because he's Polish?) There is also a string of scenes involving a Polish family who've dug their way under the Atlantic to Chicago and, upon learning they could have flown, decide to retrace their steps. Not comical.

Director John Rando and his creative team do what they can to give Ives's piece more continuity than he does. Set designer Loy Arcenas makes a few jokes of his own. One of the best is the opening layout, a backyard where the characters sit before a garage painted red and white in honor of the Polish flag; also red and white are the tire planters flanking the garage door. Arcenas flies in other objects, like a big foot when Jasiu discovers he's done something (perhaps psychosomatic) to his foot bone. David C. Woolard has no end of fun dressing the cast in outlandish garb when this is called for -- the head-to-toe Irish outfits are especially outrageous -- and wig designer Tom Watson follows suit. Sound designer Bruce Ellman and lighting designer Donald Holder help to keep up the jollity.

Walter Bobbie in Polish Joke(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
Walter Bobbie in Polish Joke
(Photo: © Joan Marcus)
While Rando can't patch over the potholes in the script, he does plenty with his cast of first rate sketch actors, although Gets as the befuddled Jasiu (or John Sadler or Jack Flanagan) is restricted by the requirements of his role to finding as much variety as he can in baleful looks. The versatile and likeable Gets, recently busy in Boys and Girls and Amour, once again is asked to do much less than he is able to do. But this is not true of the other players. Nancy Opel squeezes yuks out of every one of the seven crackpots she plays, especially the bawdy Mrs. Flanagan and a mean florist. The model-like Nancy Bell radiates some genuine warmth as the perplexed Rachel and is also a hilarious Miss McFlanagan. If she fails to score as Portia Benjamin Franklin Hamilton Yale, it's only because no actress could. (That flat joke of a name says everything you need to know about why the sequence misfires.) Richard Ziman, breaking eggs into his beer and pouring salt over the concoction, starts out gruff and good and stays that way throughout, although his other assignments lack potential.

The Polish Joke revelation, however, is Walter Bobbie (né Wladyslaw Babij), who has spent the last decade directing himself into the big time (see the still-running Chicago revival.) His six characterizations prove that the behind-the-scenes gain has been an on-the-boards loss. Radiating the kind of looks and confidence often seen behind a CEO desk, Bobbie turns the priest into a three-dimensional man and, kicking his heels, makes Mr. O'Flanagan a tartan-wearing fool. He also shines as an officious policeman and a proud Jewish dad. Here's a Gentile guy who knows how to say "spilkas" but never appears to have them.

There is, of course, another way to pronounce "Polish." What Ives needed to do with Polish Joke was to spend more time polishing not only jokes, but structure. Still, this production offers considerable amusement.