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Expletive Committed

Pulitzer winner Suzan-Lori Parks riffs on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s A, but the letter she really deserves is an F. David Ives returns in top comic form with Polish Joke.

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Mother and Child Reunion: S. Epatha Merkerson as Hester and Mos Def as her son in Fucking A.  

Suzan-Lori Parks’s success is based on a coalition of affirmative-action criticism, admiration for new imperial clothes, and masochistic audiences grooving on kicks to the groin. Parks once announced that she had discovered Shakespeare and found him good. Her latest play, Fucking A (for which she is also credited with music and lyrics), suggests that she has now discovered Brecht and Weill and found them useful.

To be sure, her heroine, Hester Smith, an abortionist who has an a branded on her chest, derives from Hawthorne, but the plot Parks has contrived is, unfortunately, her own. Hester plies her trade to amass enough money to bail her son out of jail; he was framed by the criminal mayor’s worst of First Ladies, a.k.a. Rich Bitch, desperate to give her unfaithful husband an heir. On them Hester plots revenge. What follows is a set of mistaken identities, crass coincidences, and bloodshed, with an ending putatively both tragic and ironic, and certifiably phony. The characters frequently lapse into a Parks-invented lingo called Talk, translated via projected supertitles. There are further lapses into simplistic song, musically derivative, verbally impoverished, but handily beefed up by Tim Weil’s orchestrations. Similarly, Michael Greif’s busy staging and Mark Wendland’s stark scenery combine to create an illusion of momentousness.

The acting includes the obvious from Daphne Rubin-Vega as a noble prostitute and mayoral mistress, and Bobby Cannavale as the ignoble mayor; also good work from Mos Def as a jailbird known as Monster, and Peter Gerety as an amorous butcher known as Butcher. As Hester, the invaluable S. Epatha Merkerson is so human and moving as to transport the play to heights the writing alone could never achieve.


As Alfred Jarry’s Ubu portentously noted, “If there were no Poland, there would be no Poles.” Nor would there be David Ives’s Polish Joke, furiously funny when not endearingly foolish. It asks, “What does being Polish entail?” and is about real, apocryphal, and mythic Polishness, rigorously remaining politically incorrect.

Nine-year-old Midwesterner Jan Bogdan Sadlowski (pronounced sad-WOOF-ski), nicknamed Jasiu (pronounced YAH-shoo), is told by his uncle Roman, among other things, that Poles are thought to be “backward, stupid, inept, and gloomy.” The only way out for Jasiu is “to impersonate someone not Polish.” For new nationality, Irish is recommended. Accordingly, Jasiu first becomes John Sadler as a stepping stone to his ultimate goal, John Flanagan. But he fails to convince as either, despite a bewitching brogue and heartfelt rendition of “Danny Boy.” His misadventures are legion. In the process, no nationality is spared, including Latvians (“effeminate, except for the women”), and all roads seem to lead to Woodge, which is how Lodz is pronounced in Polish. Poor Jasiu is never quite out of the woodge.

John Rando has provided suitably frantic direction, and there are whimsical sets by Loy Arcenas, dizzy costumes by David C. Woolard, and glitzy lighting by Donald Holder. Malcolm Gets is an exemplarily befuddled and at last wryly resigned Jasiu. Walter Bobbie, better known as a director, is multifacetedly droll in several parts; Richard Ziman is equally various and winning in another handful. Nancy Opel pulls off seven comic beauties, and Nancy Bell, new to me, stunningly shuttles between absurd and adorable. If the play does have occasional unfunny patches, they at least provide opportunities for stitching together the sides you have split.

Fucking A
By Suzan-Lori Parks;
staged by Michael Greif.

Polish Joke
By David Ives;
staged by John Rando.


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