Anyone looking for a good laugh or two hours of laughs might want to see David Ives' crowd-pleasing Polish Joke. As the lights rose at intermission of this HotCity Theatre Company production, even as a young jeans-clad patron raced down the aisle proclaiming, "This is really funny," the silver-haired seventysomething fellow to my right whispered to his wife, "It sure is entertaining." So the show's ethnic and "politically incorrect" humor seems to appeal to all ages. And that was at the end of Act One. Act Two elicited twice as much laughter as the first.
Funny. Entertaining. What more could a theatergoer want? Well, maybe a play. But when people are having such a good time, perhaps that's asking too much.
Because Ives is so skilled at crafting comic one-acts, it's hard to know what to make of his first full-length evening. Is it yet another collection of one-acts, this time knitted together with a continuing character? Or is it intended as a unified story with a beginning, a middle and an end? And if the latter, has Ives hurt his own cause by inserting so many skits that the play's through-line gets laughed off the stage?
At the outset, Jasiu Sadlowski is a nine-year-old youth living in a Polish neighborhood in South Chicago. Perhaps because his Uncle Roman persuades the impressionable lad that "All Polish jokes are true," Jasiu's ambition is modest: As an adult, he'd like to work in the mill or maybe even be a janitor. But after he does grow up (presumably as Ives' alter ego), Jasiu's goal is more precarious: He doesn't want to become a Polish joke himself. Jasiu realizes that even to acknowledge his real name is a career stopper, so he assumes easily spelled pseudonyms like Jack Sadler and John Flanagan. Then, as the play is drawing to a close and Jasiu's journey through the landscape of prejudice and paranoia is nearly over, out comes a piece of homespun philosophy on the order of The Wizard of Oz's "There's no place like home." Here the summary is, "People are not different. People are exactly the same." Or is that just another joke?
Ives is best known for All in the Timing, his compendium of interchangeable one-acts that received a nifty student staging last October at Saint Louis University. What remains memorable about that SLU evening is the infinite variety Ives was able to instill into six playlets and eighty minutes. But there's precious little variety in Polish Joke (in this staging by William Grivna, anyway). What we get is a series of sketches in which most everyone is trying so hard to be funny, it's as if laughter is an end in itself. But if by chance Ives intended for Polish Joke to be a play about ethnicity versus assimilation, or about pride in heritage versus the perils of discrimination, any effort at exploring a theme gets pummeled by punch lines.
Christopher Hickey, who brings a likable-enough amiability to Jasiu, is surrounded by four actors in twenty-three roles. Greg Johnston sets the production's broad tone as beer-drinking Uncle Roman, then proceeds to paint all his characters with the same primary color, thus missing, for instance, the shading that is required to evoke the pathos in what might have been a rueful scene between Jasiu and the parish priest.
By contrast, Larissa Forsythe seems to be an old hand at sketch comedy, and B. Weller is a delightful will-o'-the-wisp in his various incarnations. But Lavonne Byers is the one performer who persuades us that Ives intended Polish Joke to be more than a grab bag of gags. Regardless of whether she's an oblivious florist or an old Irish crone or even a "dumb blonde" nurse in a takeoff of a classic burlesque routine, Byers is able to comment on the material in addition to playing it. Is it a good thing that we spend more time thinking about what Byers is doing than what Ives is saying? Probably not. But at least, in an evening geared to laughter, she delivers more than her share.