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A CurtainUp Review
Polish Joke

I'm gonna tell you something now that will guide your entire life. Alla da wisdom you ever need to know. . . All Polish jokes are true
--- Roman, shaking up his nine-year-old newphew's faith in the pleasure of humming the "Beer Barrel Polka", playing the accordion, and eating duck blood soup.
Richard Ziman as  Uncle Roman and Malcolm Gets as Jasiu
Richard Ziman as Uncle Roman and Malcolm Gets as Jasiu (Photo: Joan Marcus)
David Ives, the master of the comic one-acter, has written a full length play, Polish Joke It is an autobiographical work in the sense that Ives, like Jasiu Sadlowski (Malcolm Gets), his identity-challenged hero, grew up in what is, as quoted in a recent interview, "the Polish Catholic kingdom called South Chicago." In Polish Joke that neighborhood is "da bush" -- home to mill workers, future janitors and priests drinking beer which wouldn't be beer without an egg and salt.

While the comedy is studded with light bulb jokes and references to every conceivable Polish working class stereotype, Ives skillfully climbs the slippery slope of political incorrectness without a single mean-spirited stumble. Jasiu's Candide-like journey in search of a life not pre-ordained by his ethnicity or what his Uncle Roman (Richard Ziman) calls "da luck of the Polish" or "da Polish Gong " is a funny yet thoughtful examination of the Polishness and Jewishness and Irishness that makes us at once alike and different

The play gets off to a fine start with a brief introductory monologue from Jasiu, who then metamorphoses into his wide-eyed nine-year-old self simply by rolling up his suit pants to join his Uncle Roman lounging in front of the garage door of his home.

The conversation between uncle and nephew that follows is such a hilariously wacky life lesson that you wonder if Ives can possibly top it or sustain the pace.

Gets is terrific as the little boy whose eyes seem to get bigger with each pronouncement Ziman's Roman delivers with deadpan, dead-on timing. In explaining why "Polacks are the punch line of Western Civilization" Roman also manages to skewer Wasps ("Episcopalians wit money and connections"), Lithuanians ("a loud people"), Latvians ("tend to be effeminate"), and Jews ("the master race" -- whom women of all nationalities resemble when they get older).

The sum total of the lesson Jasiu's takes away from this life-changing encounter is that though he may consider himself as an American he is "basically Polish . . .  so to speak, in exile." What's more, unless he finds a way to escape his destiny he'll end up getting hit by the bus s he's running to catch. (Don't be surprised if at some point this actually happens).

When next we meet Jasiu he's being interviewed for a high level corporate job. He's nattily attired, college-educated and answers to the non-ethnic name of John Sadler. His interviewer, a Wasp named Portia Benjamin Franklin Hamilton Yale (a marvelously bitchy Nancy Bell) turns into nosey tormentor. Thanks to frequent Ives collaborator John Rando's as always zippy and detail-oriented direction, the body language here as elsewhere is as funny as the dialogue.

Nancy Bell, Nancy Opel, Walter Bobbie. Seated: Malcolm Gets
Nancy Bell, Nancy Opel, Walter Bobbie. Seated: Malcolm Gets
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The interview ending with, you guessed it, a Polish joke, it's on to a surreal scene in which Jasiu encounters a Polish immigrant (Ziman again) who with his family has come to America through a tunnel. Next comes the best, and most emotionally nuanced scene between teen-aged Jasiu and the priest (one of several bravura portrayals by Walter Bobbie) who had counted on his joining the fold.

When Jasiu's flirtation with the priesthood ends the play starts to show signs of mid-section sag with a series of sketch-like scenes that would benefit from judicious editing and that feel more like a throwback to Ives' one-act evenings than a full length play. That's not to say these middle scenes don't have good material -- including one in which Jasiu is determined to move to Ireland but ends up in Poland. Nancy Opel, an Ives one-act veteran and Urinetown's original Penelope Pennywise, deftly plays women he meets in both countries-- not to mention, a nurse, a Jewish Yenta and a childhood friend whose Polish flag colored outfit lingers in Jasiu's sexual fantasies.

The production is superb in every respect -- from the quick-change artistry of the five actors for their two dozen parts, to the inventive sets (Loy Arcenas) and costumes (David C. Woolard). Mr. Ives pulls out of the play's overcooked mid-section by having Jasiu solve his Polish-American problem in a somewhat puzzling and ambiguous manner. Happily he also includes another quite touching visit with Uncle Roman to whom all should raise their steins and say "here's egg in your beer."

Written by David Ives
Directed by John Rando.
Cast: Nancy Bell, Walter Bobbie, Malcolm Gets, Nancy Opel, Richard Ziman.
Set Design: Loy Arcenas
Costume Design: David C. Woolard
Lighting Design: Donald Holder
Sound Design: Bruce Ellman
Dialect Coach: Claudia Hill-Sparks
Wig Design: Tom Watson
Running time: 2 hours, plus one 15-minute intermission
Manhattan Theatre Club, Stage II at City Center, 131 W. 55th St, 212/
2/25/03-4/20/03; opening 3/18/03. Tuesdays through Sundays at7:30 PM, with matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 3:00 PM. -- $45; $20 student tickets are on sale for all performances based on availability, on the day of the performance, up to one hour before showtime (limit 4 per student with valid identification).
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on performance
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