David Ives's Polish Joke, now running at Stages Repertory Theatre, is a difficult play to like, but it's also one that's hard not to admire. The narrative about a man who comes to embrace his Polish heritage is as old hat as they come, but in the frame of this droopy tale, Ives manages to create some highly inventive theatrical moments. A very rocky -- and sometimes very funny -- night of theater emerges slowly from the play's collage of shape-shifting scenes.
Some of Ives's scenes are realistic, even moving, as when the central character talks to his mentor and priest about seminary school. Other moments come at you like a Saturday Night Live sketch on crack. There is, for example, a scene involving three Irish travel agents who can't stop screeching "top o' the morning to you." Then there's the Polish immigrant who pops up from the stage floor and declares that he's looking for America and that he's been tunneling his way from Poland, with his family and his car in tow. There's also the freaky florist who can't see the people standing right in front of her. Woven into these bizarre and sometimes hysterically funny patches of clowning is a story that covers the well-trod territory of an ordinary man's identity crisis: Jasiu, the sad sack at the center of Ives's play, comes to embrace his ethnic identity despite the negative stereotypes that surround it.
From the start, it's evident that Jasiu (John R. Johnston) is a self-involved guy. A perpetual hand-wringer, he just can't get over his family of origin. Not that his mother and father have done anything bad to him. It's just that they have the misfortune of being Polish-American.
Stages Repertory Theatre, 3201 Allen Parkway, 713-527-0123
Through February 20 $25-$35.
We get a peek into Jasiu's upbringing when he leaps back to a weekend afternoon with his stereotype of an uncle. Wearing white shoes, white socks and a polyester pantsuit, Uncle Roman (Mark Roberts) drinks his beer the Polish-American way, with an egg and salt. He talks long and hard to his young nephew about the tribulations of growing up Polish-American. Because "all Polish jokes are true," nobody in their right mind would want to be Polish -- not that Uncle Roman thinks all that much of any other ethnicity. He picks on WASPs, Jews and Lithuanians, just to name a few. He advises Jasiu to grow up and become a Flanagan. "Everybody loves the Irish," says Roman. "They're not smart, but they're crafty." He adds that if you want to be smart, you have to be Jewish.
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Out of this pit of bad ethnic jokes and even worse advice, Jasiu must grow up and attempt to create an identity. To that end, he spends most of his time trying not to be Polish. At a job interview, he must face a scarily blond American named Portia Benjamin Franklin Hamilton Yale (played with a deliciously cackling laugh by Chanda Kay). Jasiu now goes by John, but nothing gets by the Waspy Ms. Yale. She will stop at nothing to get him to admit his Polishness.
From here, Jasiu twirls through a series of nightmarish scenes directed with a great deal of energy by Brian Byrnes. Some are quite serious. The strongest scene in the play, in fact, is one in which Jasiu is young again, telling a priest that he's not going to enter the seminary after all. The priest, played by Jason Douglas with rueful grace and wisdom, is clearly brokenhearted to be losing his best pupil to the secular world. Their conversation covers everything from Hamlet to Jasiu's odd fetish for girls dressed in red and white (the colors of the Polish flag), and it adds some much-needed depth to the young man's solipsistic struggles. This is the only time Ives stops talking about stereotypes and actually ventures into some of the more subtle difficulties that come with embracing one's heritage.
But when Jasiu decides he's had it with being Polish and will fix his problem by moving to Ireland, the story becomes increasingly surreal. The scenes that follow are inventive and funny, but the tone of the play shifts dramatically. In one scene, he arrives at a travel agency staffed with Irish people from the old country. They say some very funny things. The "grand" morning is as "sweet as the swollen teat of a new mother," or the "first good fart after a plate of cooked cabbage." The litany of jokes is endless, but the scene doesn't go anywhere or tell us anything new about Jasiu's struggle. The same happens when Jasiu encounters a "half-Polish" doctor who electroshocks his foot back to life.
And when Jasiu ends up in Poland listening to a real Polish woman scold him about his unwillingness to love his identity, the play just gets ridiculously preachy. It turns out that Jasiu has to spend two acts learning what most theatergoing grown-ups already know. Underneath it all, people are very much the same, and being Polish is every bit as good as being Irish.