nytheatre.com review by Michael Criscuolo
October 17, 2007
Sam Marks's new play, The Joke, is both funny and intense. Funny in that it knows and respects the craft of its protagonists, a pair of Borscht Belt comedians; intense in a way that only stand-up comics can be when no one is watching them (and sometimes even when someone is): savage, acerbic, biting, and downright feral. In The Joke—which is currently receiving a solid and engaging production at Studio Dante—some of the best zingers happen offstage precisely because they hit a little too close to home.
"Steady Eddie" and "Doug the Mug" are a comedy duo from Bay Ridge who work year-round in the Catskills. The play opens in 1965, during the heyday of their rim shot one-liner brand of humor. But, the times they are a-changin'. Funnyman Eddie craves TV stardom while straight man Doug just wants more to do in the act. He's tired of being the butt of all the jokes, so he starts doing a more confessional, long form style of stand-up in the vein of Lenny Bruce, which Eddie disdains as being only "for the hippies." The Joke chronicles the team's internal power struggle across a span of nearly ten years as Eddie and Doug develop increasingly opposing approaches and ideology, and endure a series of challenging setbacks, both personal and professional.
Marks has a real feel for this world, starting with Eddie and Doug's material. "I'm so fat my left ass cheek gets mail," says a bored Doug at one point. When one of Eddie's jokes falls flat in another scene, he bounces back with, "I love performing here: I hate crowds" (insert rim shot here). The Joke is full of such amusing and authentic sounding grade-B stuff.
The author also has a knack for conveying Eddie and Doug's mounting desperation. Eddie hears the clock ticking on his chances for network stardom, and becomes increasingly stoic as a result as the play goes on. The only time he comes alive is onstage, as if he were saving all the good parts of himself for those few minutes each day. Otherwise, he becomes increasingly belligerent to his longtime partner, telling Doug flatly at one point, "Your act is shit!"
Doug has some issues of his own, namely the different passive-aggressive ways he keeps lashing out at Eddie onstage. Like intentionally sabotaging the act one night when some TV bigwigs come to check them out, or walking into the audience another night and harassing a wiseguy (this is a particularly uncomfortable and well done moment, executed with flop sweat-inducing marksmanship by Jordan Gelber as Doug). Of course, it doesn't help that Doug is a drunk. His loose cannon tactics become more of a liability as The Joke goes on. Equally apparent, though, is how much both men need each other (even if they won't admit that) despite the fact that they increasingly hate each other.
Director Sam Gold does a nice job allowing The Joke to take its acidic time conveying its cautionary message about the cost of Eddie and Doug's single-minded pursuit of fame. The way both he and Marks navigate the pair's subtle shifts in status and power is impressive. Set and costume designer Victoria Imperioli also does a wonderful job contributing to the play's low-rent ambiance. Her terrific dressing room set—the red walls of which are adorned with pictures of luminaries such as Sid Caesar, George Burns, Jack Benny, and Don Rickles—is as telling as anything in the script. And the rotating selection of ties she gives Eddie to wear with his never-changing loud plaid suit is a great running gag.
The aforementioned Gelber and Thomas Sadoski do a bang-up job together as Doug and Eddie, capturing the duo's constantly changing dynamics and delivering the play's humor masterfully. The way they reverse roles, both onstage and off, and convey the simultaneous contempt and affection they have for each other, really cuts to the bitter, melancholy heart of the play.
In the play's final scene, one man says to the other, "All you are is a rumor, a whisper, a cautionary tale." As true as that statement is, the character on the receiving end could easily fire back with Plato's prescient maxim, "The mask which an actor wears is apt to become his face." The Joke skillfully addresses both ideas, and a whole lot more, with dark precision and even darker mirth.