Sam Marks’s The Joke features two comics stagnating on the uniquely dreary Catskills circuit: Doug the Mug (Jordan Gelber), amiable and alcoholic, and Steady Eddie (Thomas Sadoski), dapper and dimpled. When they’re not sabotaging, resenting, or cuckolding each other, these old friends prepare and tell jokes for their two-man act. We slide between their onstage quips and backstage quibbles, even as the play slowly blurs the distinction between their performance and their reality—jealousy erupts during routines and punch lines interrupt conversation. This carefully slippery production toys with time as well: The characters hint that weeks have passed in what seem to us like minutes. At such moments, we question—as the comics do themselves—how they could still be stuck in the Catskills, recycling the same arguments and complaints.
Plays about tiresome situations run the risk of feeling tiresome themselves, and The Joke needs a faster, steadier crescendo of tension. Yet the comedians’ impressively dysfunctional relationship intrigues throughout, especially as the performance draws to its frank, merciless close. Theirs is a discourse of endless tryouts (“Make me laugh,” Ed demands of Doug) and rejections (“Your act is shit”). Despite their sniping, the men need each other as much as Doug needs his alcohol. If we sometimes question why, it’s in the same spirit that we question our own inadequate, inescapable relationships.