When Monty Python's Spamalot opened on Broadway, theatrical producers were amazed at that show's ability to draw a highly elusive ticket-buyer to the theatre: the middle-aged male. Clearly that same Baby Boomer, following King Arthur and his Laker Girls, needs to hear about David Ives.
With an instinct for wordplay that rivals Tom Stoppard (back when he was funny) and a great gift for goofiness, Mr. Ives shows all the potential needed to keep that same cohort in the theater for the foreseeable future. His brain teasing black-outs, lumped together in the revues Variations and All In The Timing, are worthy successors to everything that's loved about John Cleese, Eric Idle, et al. And, Mr. Ives can even write for women which, perhaps, puts him a notch above the Pythons.
Polish Joke is a paean to Ives' boyhood neighborhood in Chicago. And though it's a full-length play about an absurd struggle to rise above absurdity, it's still lighter-than-air. Under what must have been the intensely loving, supportive direction of William Grivna, it's enjoying a terrific local premiere, with just enough talk about beer and breasts to justify dragging your husband along.
Christopher Hickey is Jasiu, or John Sadler if you prefer (and nine out of ten HR people evidently do prefer that blander name), the wide-eyed boy with the modern version of the Identity Crisis. In his case, the crisis is that he actually has an identity, in an America where a sense of self-importance comes from worldly success. The fact that it's a Polish identity that must be paved over just makes this show a lot more fun than it might be otherwise.
Mr. Hickey is almost painfully bright eyed and kindhearted, thanks to the sense of place and Polishness that keeps and comforts him. His childhood ends after his godfather (Greg Johnston, with a keen grasp of an older man's pleasant futility) explains how Jasiu can never escape his identity. After that, Mr. Hickey's self-esteem becomes a house of cards in a very windy city.
The most delicious and delirious moments are courtesy of Larissa Forsythe and Lavonne Byers in a surprisingly well-drawn series of cameos of the women in Jasiu's life. Ms. Forsythe as an extravagantly WASP-ish executive, a childhood crush, and a devoted girlfriend; Ms. Byers is a fantastically retro Polish airline official, a potato-eating Irish woman and on and on, in their many incarnations. I would never have thought the brainy Ms. Byers capable of playing a hilariously vacuous blonde bimbo, but she does even that beautifully. At curtain call, I really did shake myself momentarily when I counted only Ms. Forsythe and Ms. Byers among the actresses in the quick final bows.
Elsewhere, Mr. Johnston is excellent as a world-weary priest and as the older, dying Uncle Roman at the end. Actor B. Weller does very well as many of the others: a Pole who tunnels his way to America, a half-Polish doctor (thank God Mr. Weller has finally found a way to use his Charlton Heston impression on stage), and a wickedly wacky travel agent in a scene that almost seems like a full-length play itself. Mr. Weller also did well in All In The Timing recently, so it comes as no surprise that he's right at home in Polish Joke. How many self-effacing, slightly off-center actors are there who (as Trotsky, in Timing) could so sincerely fume over international politics with a hatchet buried in their forehead?
It's probably rude and ridiculous to paint a silly show like this with a great Social Meaning when it repels that kind of stain like Scotchguard (or its Irish equivalent). Polish Joke seems to dance away in a little jig (or a subversive polka) every time I get it under the microscope. But we do learn that the mythology of Poland is as rich as any nation's (and a good deal funnier) and their ironic pride is oddly calming. Beyond Mr. Hickey's beautiful, light-hearted torment, this semi-demi-memory-play lingers in our minds with a clever feel for why Americans bother to re-invent themselves, and how a loving fate still manages to unmask us, now and then.
Polish Joke at the ArtLoft Theater, through May 6, 2006 at 1529 Washington Avenue, downtown. (314) 289-4060 or email at firstname.lastname@example.org. The web-site address is www.hotcity.org.