Sam Marks’ new play about Borcht-belt comedians, “The Joke,” is confused. How confused is it? It’s so confused, you have to look at the program to figure out the decade it’s set in. It’s so confused, you can’t even tell where the characters are. It’s so confused… well, you get the idea. Jordan Gelber and Thomas Sadoski do what they can with the material, but Sam Gold’s uncertain direction of Marks’ oblique, fitfully clever script wastes a promising premise and a couple of terrific actors.
For a director or writer, it’s undoubtedly a dramaturgical inconvenience to work signposts saying “Welcome to 1965!” into your play. But when Marks and Gold decide to jump right in to the fracturing friendship between “The Joke’s” two stylistically disparate comics, they leave us wondering if we’re in the present day right up until Steady Eddie (Thomas Sadoski) punctures his act with a horrifyingly racist imitation of a Chinese delivery man. If we knew where and when we were, this would be a pretty good moment — the unapologetic racism of yesteryear staring the uncomfortable audience right in the face. As it stands, it’s just creepy, and not in a good way.
Marks is trying to draw an unconventional kind of participation out of his audience by vetting the aging, occasionally funny wife jokes and “How big was it?” humor before us, and then opposing it with his version of Lenny Bruce-style truth-telling. Doug the Mug (Jordan Gelber) is supposed to be the cutting-edge comedian who doesn’t get as many laughs but makes people think; Ed is supposed to be the one-linering sellout.
The argument over which jokes hit and which jokes miss becomes an important factor in the eventual fallout between the two men, with the audience supposedly determining the success or failure that they quarrel about later. The ambitious conceit requires specific responses from befuddled theatergoers but never quite gels the way Marks seems to intend. Everything falls squarely into the realm of the mildly amusing, with a thin patina of weirdness caused by uncertainty. It doesn’t help that we can’t always tell when the actors are supposed to be on stage performing within the play, either.
It should be noted that Gelber and Sadoski certainly know what they’re doing, even when we don’t. Marks’ best idea, and the one that supplies the play with what resonance it has, comes from the understanding that two men who insult each other for a living will probably end up hating one another’s guts. It happened to Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, after all.
Like the rest of the piece, there are moments in this relationship that are vague when they should be clear (when did Doug’s wife really start cheating, for example?), but the cutthroat, lightning-quick offstage repartee suggests some great ideas buried in Marks’ work, or at least great characters.
But good as they are, not even Gelber and Sadoski can force “The Joke” to work correctly. Compounding the temporal confusion, the play repeatedly jumps forward in time without explanation. To be honest, a day later it’s still not entirely clear — even with script and program in hand to scrutinize. And that’s ultimately what kills “The Joke:” in order to understand it, somebody has to explain it to you.