David Ives is perhaps best known for his collection of very short, comic one-act plays, which ran Off Broadway as “All in the Timing.” His new play, “Polish Joke,” premiering at Seattle’s A Contemporary Theater, is a full-length work, but it still presents itself as a series of vignettes — some wildly funny, others somewhat somber, and not all in balance.
“Polish Joke” is loosely based on the playwright’s life story. Ives — whose given surname was Roszkowski — grew up in a working-class, Polish, Catholic neighborhood in Chicago. He has described his childhood as “blissful,” and yet he has acknowledged he became aware early on that his people were the brunt of the world’s jokes.
In “Polish Joke,” a boy named Jasiu (Ted deChatelet) leaves his family and neighborhood behind in an attempt to erase his Polishness and join the intelligentsia. By all outward appearances, he succeeds, and yet he is dogged by his origins.
“Maybe being Polish is a choice, or a habit,” says his Uncle Roman (Richard Ziman) — that is, something that can be changed. Or, maybe it’s Jasiu’s destiny — the destiny of all Poles — to be “backwards, stupid, inept and gloomy.” Jasiu’s journey through life tests both these theories.
Jasiu first turns to religion, studying to be a priest. He discovers the life of the mind and the spirit, only to have to abandon the church when he loses his inner “calling.”
Later, he becomes a novelist, manages real estate and acquires a stylish big-city girlfriend. But he can’t shake the feeling that his Polishness ultimately will doom him to failure and misery. Finally, in a desperate (and desperately funny) bid to recast his ethnicity, he changes his name to Flanagan and buys a one-way ticket to Ireland, where, he believes, everyone is happy all the time.
These scenes are set in a variety of locations, whimsically rendered by set designer Loy Arcenas. They’re peopled by dozens of characters played by four actors: the versatile Ziman, antic Leslie Law, elegant Nancy Bell and energetic John Aylward. Although the actors have little time to establish their characters, they’re uniformly terrific. Aylward is particularly hilarious as the aggressively optimistic Irish travel agent and moving as Jasiu’s wise, wry priest.
The scene in which Jasiu tells the priest he is leaving his religious schooling is one of the play’s finest. Under Jason McConnell Buzas’ direction, Aylward and deChatelet hit a poignant note here that’s missing from some of the play’s other scenes, which seem alternately farcical and heavy-handed.
Ives does a clever job of weaving running jokes throughout his various scenarios. The gags not only recur, but evolve in unexpected and delightful ways. If he (or a director) could weave a consistent tone as well, his play would be well served.