Question: “How do you sink a Polish battleship? Answer: Put it in the water.” Please, don’t get offended, the David Ives’ play Polish Joke is loaded with “Polish jokes” that are not meant to offend, but to explain a feeling, an emotion, an acceptance of a lifestyle. For example, “How do you get a one armed Polish person out of a tree? Wave to him.” But this play being performed at McKeeesport Little Theater is much more than a machine-gun litany of Polish one-liners.
As the play opens, a very Polish Uncle Roman (Eric Buell) has the audience in stitches sitting in a lawn chair in his driveway with his barrage of “typical” Polish jokes while trying to indoctrinate his then 9 year old nephew Jasiu (Arjun Kumar) as to the reasons that Polish people are doomed to be at the receiving end of some pretty hefty amounts of stereotypes. Why? Because, according to Uncle Roman, the birthright of Polish descendants is to accept the public’s perception of them as lazy and basically not too bright. As he explains, Polish people are prone to sit around drinking beer with eggs and salt, eat blood sausage, and hang kielbasa in their living rooms. “That’s what Polish people do,” he explains to young Jasiu.
However, the response of Jasiu always being a “why does this have to be” is the driving force behind this comedy. Jaisu is determined not to settle into this fate. Hence, the Polish Joke becomes, in actuality, Jasui’s quixotic journey into fighting his own windmills (in this case, his Polish heritage) to become anything but Polish, discovering, along with way, that this is an impossible task. He fools no one.
Polish Joke is a “coming of age” ritual of Jasiu’s to purge his ethnicity, at least publically, which moves him into an extremely confused adulthood. He leaves home to explore the world and chooses a variety of surnames and occupations (Jewish, WASP, Irish) hoping to settle on a “heritage” that will be more accepting. The task of each of the other four actors in this comedy is to become “someone” or “something” different, to teach Jasiu a lesson, which, actually, works well on stage.
The real joke is not the expected, actual Polish jokes heard throughout the play, but the fact that it is the understanding toward Jasiu’s adulthood. The joke is actually on him. His “Polish cover-up” never really works.
Ives’ play, directed by David Hofmann, itself is produced into small collections of 13 scenes that follow Jasiu throughout his life, returning to the acceptance of his history, and, after (finally and accidentally) settling in Poland and marrying an authentic Polish woman, returns home to explain to his uncle that being Polish is not as bad as he was lead to believe.
Kumars angst, which he carries throughout the play, is believable, surrounded by characters of all different cultures ultimately discovering his false attempts to join the “intelligencia” of the world. This leads to soliloquies directed at the audience that beg the question of “who am I, really?”. It’s actually up to the other characters to discover his true identity – forcing him to accept his Polish fate. The lesson Jasiu learns is that one cannot escape one’s identity presented by Uncle Roman in the first scene of the play. Kumar’s four cast mates help move him to this reality.
Each of the five actors cast in this play take on a variety of roles: sanitation workers, doctors, priests, Irish travel agents, florists, policemen, Yentas, and more and do so convincingly in extremely quick scene changes.
Buell, Amanda Anne Leight, and Justin Koffard are asked to do almost the impossible by the continuously changing roles, action, and scenery in this work. They all do a yeoman’s job changing themselves into believable characters transforming every scene. The one aspect of this play that works is that Buell, Haggerty, and Kofford pull off the changes and, through the usual but necessary “willing suspension of disbelief” force the audience to believe that these truly are different characters.
However, the witty and eccentric Kate Haggerty very much pushes this comedy along and carries the weight of the real wit and humor throughout the variety of scenes. She portrays the foil to Kumar’s seriousness as he seeks an identity; it is Haggerty who transforms each of the scenes into almost “belly-laugh” responses from the audience. Her portrayal of a nurse, a Yenta, and a Polish flight attendant are precious.
Haggerty captures the comic essence of the six or seven roles she plays help to add the true hilarity Hoffman is searching for in this work. She’s a funny actress and definitely an audience grabber. It’s difficult to take your eyes off her because she is that adorable and scene grabbing. She knows shtick. Her portrayal of an Irish travel agent and a Polish Airline stewardess (eventually Jasiu’s wife as he accidentally settles in Poland) is “tears-in-the-eyes” funny.
The cozy and inviting McKeesport Little Theater, including director Hoffman, took a chance on this at times fragmented comedy (Ives’ issue, not Hoffman’s), and, for the most part, he and his band of actors pulled it off. No one in the audience left offended by what the title might suggest. Polish Joke is no joke. Rather, it’s a journey toward human understanding.