For Jasiu Sadlowski (Michael Todd Behrens), “Polish” isn’t just a word—it’s a sentence. At the age of 9, he’s told by his Uncle Roman (Morgan Lund) that “all Polish jokes are true”; being a Polish kid from South Chicago virtually dooms him to a life of failure, unless he actively pursues not being Polish.
Ethnic self-loathing doesn’t exactly sound like the stuff of riotous humor, but in Polish Joke, playwright David Ives shows how thin the line is between tragedy and comedy. As energetically staged by Salt Lake Acting Company, Polish Joke finds wild delights in upending stereotypes and identity anxiety.
Actors play multiple roles in this journey that finds Jasiu ricocheting back and forth through key moments of his life. As a recent college graduate—his name changed to “John Sadler”—he suffers through a job interview with a suspicious WASP (Daisy Blake); as a high school seminary candidate, he reveals his doubts about his vocation to his priest (Kevin Doyle). And as an adult, he ponders fleeing for Ireland when he visits the jig-dancing, “Top o’ the mornin’”-spouting proprietors of a travel agency (Doyle, Blake and Arika Schockmel).
With a gleeful refusal to bow to political correctness, Ives fills his scenes with great gags and over-the-top characters; Uncle Roman’s spin through the characteristics of various ethnicities includes the observation that “Latvians tend to be effeminate … except for the women.” The cast members all have great fun with the broad roles they’re asked to fill, each one getting standout moments—Doyle’s brilliant scene as the priest, Lund’s Uncle Morgan, Schockmel’s abusive florist, Blake’s aggressive interviewer. While the second act delivers a lower ratio of punch lines to insights, there are more belly laughs in Polish Joke than the Salt Lake stage has delivered in years.
What makes Polish Joke even more satisfying is that it has more on its mind that just jokes. Ethnic identity may be the specific matter at hand in Jasiu/John’s life, but the subtext here covers broader territory. At its core, it’s a study of all the things people flee in their family history that they define in negative terms—a religious upbringing, economic hardship, prejudice, abuse. John becomes so desperate to define himself in terms of what he doesn’t want to be that he’s unable to set positive goals—and the surreal situations in which he finds himself reflect his conviction that everyone can see through the inferiority he’s trying to hide.
It’s not easy to make a production as thematically potent as it is laugh-out-loud funny, but director Kirstie Gulick Rosenfield coordinates a top-notch production. Lighting designer Jeff Sturgis bathes Keven Myhre’s simple set with deep reds, as though the colors of the Polish flag were oppressing John’s every step. Actors bring props onto the stage with choreographed flourishes, lending even the scene changes a sense of the absurd.
If Rosenfield makes one questionable choice, it comes during the play’s climactic return visit by John to Uncle Morgan and his hometown. It’s a great summation by Ives of how deeply people can be damaged by the messages they internalize from their youth, and it feels like something that should be played with an edge rather than with a sigh of resignation. Yet perhaps that might have felt like a violation of all the goodwill built up by this hilarious production. It’s clear enough Polish Joke rejects the notion that where you come from is everything, and is equally scornful of the idea that where you come from is nothing. Ives and Salt Lake Acting Company turn one man’s quest for accepting everything about himself into one hugely entertaining ride.
POLISH JOKE Salt Lake Acting Company 168 W. 500 North Through Feb. 27 363-7522