THE POLISH JOKE MAKES A REAPPEARANCE
by Harvey Perr
published November 14, 2008
now playing Off Broadway at 59E59 Theater B
through November 30
The rebellious young Bogus – a real Polish name, one presumes, and not
intended as a symbol – has “FUCK OFF” tattooed on his forehead, and, when asked by his priest what it means, he says – won’t this come as a
surprise? – “Fuck off!” That gets the first big laugh in the production of Przemyslaw
Wojcieszek’s play Made in Poland, a joint project of The Play Company and the Polish Cultural
Institute. Kit Williamson, who plays Bogus, continues to get comic mileage out of being totally pissed off at everything, until it becomes
depressingly clear that laughter is not what Mr. Wojcieszek had in mind. That fact hasn’t deterred director Jackson Gay from trying to find as
many places as possible to inject humor into the proceedings, but, as hard as she tries, she is defeated by the punishingly serious approach
the play keeps demanding it take.
That odd mixture of tragedy and satire which personifies much of Eastern European theater might have worked if the ground
that Made in Poland covers weren’t so familiar. This, in fact,
is pretty much the same play as Tom Stoppard’s richer and more deeply human Rock ’n’ Roll,
except that it takes place in Poland rather than Czechoslavakia, and is written from the inside (although
Stoppard, born Czech, isn’t exactly an outsider). In its scattershot style, the play portrays a regime strewn with American garbage from
gangsterism to pornography and rails against the anti-intellectualism and anti-humanism which prevail in this decadent and dying culture.
Unfortunately, the predominant vision of violence and decay are by and large unexplored, except as images
of shock. And the play is peopled with the usual suspects: the kind but ineffectual priest, the school teacher who has been forced out of
his position and who has lapsed into alcoholism, the virginal young woman who is there to save the hero’s soul while forfeiting her own
The one image that pushes its way into the foreground and is capable of making a real and totally original impression is that of
the singer Krzystof Krawczyk, whose records are banned and whose memory clings to all those who oppose the intensifying destruction of
humanity (his face is multiplied across Ola Maslik’s appropriately gritty set). There are two moments which should reverberate, one in
which Bogus’s mother is left alone to listen to one of the banned records, and another in which Krawczyk appears on film. Both moments are
blurred in this production because they are abbreviated, rather than played out. This derailment severely hampers not only the play but our
possible interest in the outcome of the play’s survivors.
Karen Young has some affecting moments as the rebel’s mother and Ryan O’Nan reeks with clamminess as a vicious gang leader. And
Ron Campbell is clearly having fun with the part of the drunken ex-teacher, although the performance
veers somewhat toward the indulgent. It is hard to say if the Alissa Valles translation catches the flavor of the Polish text, but, if it
does, then the writing itself tends to be rather graceless and sometimes didactic.
Made in Poland, as labels
go, is attached to an ill-fitting garment.
harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com