By David Ives
Directed by John Rando
Manhattan Theatre Club / 131 West 55th Street / (212) 581-1212

Reviewed by David Spencer

This will be a short review, not because there isn’t a wealth of good things to say about "Polish Joke", but because one doesn’t want to say too much. Like its hero’s quest, the experience of David Ives’ new play is a voyage of discovery.

In short, it’s a semi-linear, semi-absurdist, semi-surreal memory play, in which a Polish-American man, Jasiu (Malcom Gets) recounts all the ways in which—from the age of a young boy to his current age, that of a man nearing middle age—he learned about, tried to hide, avoided, denied and finally embraced his ethnic and national heritage.

And it’s one of the funniest plays of the decade. It may even be David Ives’ finest hour to date.

As one might imagine, it has a semi-autobiographical impetus, which makes it heartfelt, or more accurately heart-experienced in a way that Ives’ comedy usually is not—but it’s also the first genuinely satisfying and, in an artistic sense, successful full-length play he’s written. (Until now, collections of shorts such as "All in the Timing" and "Time Flies" have been his only bulls-eyes.)

And curiously, this full-length evening plays into Ives’ strengths as a short-form practitioner—for "Polish Joke" is episodic, and the episodes are expertly wrought sketches, from the one in which Uncle Roman (Richard Ziman) advises 9-year old Jasiu on the built-in foibles of Poles, to the one in which a grown Jasiu applies for a high-profile job with an ethnicity-obsessed interviewer who won’t let him duck any background inquiries (Nancy Bell). And many more. But for the first time, the sketches have a central character who provides continuity and a thematic thread—and the build is cumulative. The play is quite a unique construct in that regard.

In these sketches, Malcom Gets is the ideal foil for a quartet of expert comic actors, who play anywhere from four to six drastically different roles each—aside from the aforementioned two, Nancy Opel and Walter Bobbie complete the ensemble. All are wonderful, but one must pause to give special praise to Mr. Bobbie (yes, the same Walter Bobbie who directed the stage revival of "Chicago" that eventually led to the film he didn’t direct), who is here giving one of the most remarkable and deft performances in the annals of Getting Comedy Right. His portrayals are both subtle (an irreverent priest) and outrageous (a flamingly Irish travel agent) and never does he err on timing or in walking the fine line that preserves verisimilitude.

As for the work of director John Rando—since the initial Seattle production of this play was helmed by Jason McConnell Buzas, none but an insider can know how much of the dramaturgical guidance was inherited by Rando and how much contributed—but simply in terms of getting it on its feet, gathering the perfect cast and understanding "funny" in a number of manifestations and styles, Rando proves himself far superior to most of the new directors working the theatre scene. And if this is the way he will continue to compensate for the debacle that was "Dance of the Vampires", then all, I tell you, all is forgiven.

"Polish Joke" is sweet, unexpected, important in its way and among the more delightful surprises of this or any season. Make sure you see it, or the Polish joke will be on you…

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