Thomas Sadoski and Jordan Gelber in The Joke
(© George H M McLaughlin)
Thomas Sadoski and Jordan Gelber in The Joke
(© George H M McLaughlin)
Stop me if you've experienced this one before: You're in a club, desperately hoping that the so-called comedian onstage will come up with something funny. The moment never arrives. And that unmet anticipation is actually painful -- both physically and psychologically. The performer could be said to be "dying," but -- in expending your time and extending your good will -- you end up hurting, too. Playwright Sam Marks keeps the audience suspended in this discomfiting limbo for the entire 70-minute length of The Joke, a two-hander premiering at Studio Dante.

But, at least the pace is antic, under Sam Gold's headlong direction, even if it's pretty much a given that this comedic duo from the '60s -- schlubby "Doug the Mug" (Jordan Gelber) and slick "Steady Eddie" (Thomas Sadoski) -- aren't exactly at the top of their profession. If they were, they wouldn't be stuck in a Catskills dinner-theater dive dreaming of the day when "the TV people" will come scouting.

Doug, as the warm-up act quickly relegated to rim shots, is especially resentful: "I get to bang a drum while some old broad tries to find another clam in her linguini," he protests. Bitterness isn't all that tough to play for laughs, but Doug -- whose jokes are at once ponderous, tasteless, and morose -- is truly unfunny, as Eddie relentlessly reminds him. The mystery is why Eddie took Doug on as a partner in the first place. (Perhaps as sounding board, or a ploy to make himself look good?) Not to mention why -- as the script segues in fits and starts, onstage and backstage, from 1965 into the 1970s -- he doesn't just split.

Perhaps it's because their hyper-codependent, S&M relationship undergoes an inversion amid the cultural shifts of the late '60s, when Doug, forsaking schtick and his "on" mask (a fierce smile that, in an anthropological documentary, could as easily pass for aggression), goes sincere and confessional. The material that Doug develops, though presumed to be successful in the context of the play, truly seems better suited to an analyst's couch.

Marks achieves a measure of poetry when Doug, for example, reminisces about being turned on by his mother's "perfume-sherry smell" or recalls his ill-augured sexual initiation, the immediate aftermath of a groin injury. Blame it on the script, rather than Gelber, who accords the text all the subtlety it's due, but the guy is still not funny by any stretch. Plus, Doug doesn't fit the Lenny Bruce lineage that he's evidently meant to be emulating.

It's not revealing too much to suggest that Eddie might ultimately enjoy some measure of success: he's got the looks -- especially once costumer Victoria Imperioli graduates him from a corny plaid suit to proto-Armani -- and one of those bemused, considering-the-possibilities smiles that are ineluctably seductive. But is Eddie funny? No, he's just ambitious and mean.

While Marks does a good job of underscoring the animosity that can fuel comedy, he never quite comes up with the finished product. In fact, Marks' approach appears downright perverse. In examining comedy so assiduously, especially its behind-the-scenes aspects, he seems determined to extinguish its potential. Still, the guys and their thwarted goals tend to stick with you at the close of this thoroughly professional production. If not a barrel of laughs, The Joke does prove unsettling, thus meeting a minimal requirement of effective theater.