Partial Births

Parks Faces Tragedy; Ives Masks Comedy

The weaknesses stand out sharply because Parks coins gold on the credit side of her ledger. In addition to her high aims and the frequent magic of her dialogue, her assets include four gleaming, 24-karat performances. Susan Blommaert's cold incisiveness, as the bureaucrat handling Hester's case, can lower the room temperature with a look. Mos Def embodies an escaped convict with an ease and a gestural daring to match Parks's own. Daphne Rubin-Vega mixes giddy, burbling comedy with bitter earthiness to make Canary Mary a complete new person. Last and most gloriously, there's S. Epatha Merkerson, whose softest murmur has more tragic intensity than some actors' screams. Merkerson works from an inner center silent and white-hot, like a burning glass; you need only study the elegantly sculpted lines of her face to feel the heat.

Parks's shortcomings are apparent because, aiming for tragedy, she had the wisdom to reveal her vulnerability. With David Ives, the reverse applies: Striving to write a full-evening comedy, he has fallen victim to the defensive impulse to make it funny. As a result, he's filled Polish Joke with skits to the point where you hardly notice the play he's trying to write. As staged by John Rando, with a quartet of able comedians gleefully headed by Nancy Opel and Walter Bobbie, the skits are often extremely funny indeed. The Irish skit, which runs on a little too long for me, is most people's favorite; as a Smith & Dale fan, I prefer the doctor sketch. But what I'd really prefer most would be the play Ives apparently intended to write, on the American dilemma of ethnicity versus assimilation, which is centered on his fifth character, a Polish American who doesn't want to be a Polish joke. Not only interesting in himself, this character is played by Malcolm Gets with touching sincerity and grace, as a human being living a nightmare rather than a straight man in sketch comedy. This is unfair; either Ives should build a play around the character or Rando should show the actor how to walk this way. (If he could walk that way, he wouldn't need the talcum powder.)

S. Epatha Merkerson and Mos Def in Fucking A: grappling with Hawthorne-y questions
photo: Michal Daniel
S. Epatha Merkerson and Mos Def in Fucking A: grappling with Hawthorne-y questions


Fucking A
By Suzan-Lori Parks
Joseph Papp Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street

Polish Joke
By David Ives
Manhattan Theatre Club
131 West 55th Street

Instead, Ives's hero proceeds from sketch to sketch, the punchline of his joke life being that he marries the only utterly unhumorous person in the play and settles down with her in Poland. Which may be a handy way to wind things up, but says little about how Ives feels we should live in this nation of immigrants. Like Parks, Ives lets his inner preoccupations usurp, rather than interact with, external reality. But where Parks has at least pushed the outer doors open, Ives farcically slams them shut.

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