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To demoralize a contemporary playwright, just ask him to tell a joke. Unless he’s Steve Martin, whose Picasso at the Lapin Agile is currently packing in crowds off-Broadway, he will promptly tie himself in knots.

Small wonder. Situation comedy is a snap for dramatists, and character-based humor comes with the territory, but not since the days of vaudeville has actual joke-telling so reeked of flopsweat. At about the same moment that perspiring stand-up comics began mopping their brows and taking over TV sitcoms, their rhythms were all but banished from the stage. Neil Simon was once renowned for his three-laugh haymakers (even his setups got guffaws), but that was before he took home a Pulitzer. Now when a Simon jest surfaces, it’s apt to be instructive, as in Laughter on the 23rd Floor, his comedy about comedy writers.

Other playwrights have learned the same trick. Witness the lengths Carter W. Lewis goes in Round House Theater’s odd dramedy about prejudice, An Asian Jockey in Our Midst. Set at a California racetrack that once served as a WWII internment camp for Japanese-Americans, the play devolves into a well-intended muddle as it leaps confusingly across temporal and racial divides. But at its center is an intriguing title character whose chief distinction is that he can’t—or won’t—tell a joke. In fact, Cody (J.B. Barricklo) dreams of becoming the first stand-up comedian not to court actual laughter. He thinks, notes another character disparagingly, that “not being funny is what’s funny.”

That characterization isn’t quite accurate. Behind the budding anti-comic’s nonjokes lies an agenda born of attitude. Give Cody a straight line (“Why did the chicken cross the road?”), and he’ll snap right back with an even straighter line (“I don’t want to ask the big questions”). Any chuckles garnered by that rejoinder owe more to an undercurrent of existential ennui than to actual humor.

Other Cody “jokes” push the envelope further. Even if you’re primed to laugh, you’ll have trouble with a construction like the one he barks at a hostile listener in the first act: “Know what you get when you cross sympathetic labor pains with a hysterical pregnancy?….A child who borrows your tears but is invisible to touch.” There’s the germ of something comic in this, but not near enough the surface to prompt chuckles.

More accessible, but no more laugh-provoking, is the acid wit behind the riddle that most clearly exposes the playwright’s central themes of class issues and race. “Do you know why Cody cried when he was born?” asks the comic, arching an eyebrow suggestively. “Because he was down…(pause)…and out.”

We are, let’s note, pretty far here from the sort of pointless jesting embraced by the brain-damaged lad in Obituary Bowl, whose concept of a joke is simply a premise followed by a surprise ending. The sample that playwright Barbara McConagha offers in Woolly Mammoth’s hit—“Knock, knock.” “Who’s there?” “Pizza.” “Pizza who?” “Pizza arithmetic.”—is a classic of its type, as unsullied by meaning as its teller is by guile. Imagine this lad bursting into peals of laughter at his own joke and the image is utterly innocent.

But if Cody so much as smiles at his jests in Asian Jockey, they acquire an edge—of irony, of distress, perhaps even of malice. They’re written in such a way that they make listeners feel vaguely out of the loop, something that, unfortunately, could also be said about the play that contains them. Lewis has constructed the evening as an elaborate Twilight Zone episode in which a present-day Nipponophobic black science teacher (Doug Brown) and his comparatively tolerant wife (Cathy Simpson) find themselves transformed into a Japanese-American couple circa 1958. As a chaos theorist, the teacher would seem to be better prepared for this turn of events than his spouse, but he’s pretty thoroughly undone by being turned into the very thing he despises. She simply assumes the worst (“I’m getting a very posthumous feeling about this”) and gets on with life.

There turns out to be more to their transformation than meets the eye—something about a family’s expectations, a casually thrown bottle, and the prejudices of a bygone era—but it’s not especially coherent as laid out by Lewis. Nor is unraveling the play’s web of intrigue as rewarding as it initially promises to be.

Still, Scot Reese’s crisply authoritative staging makes the evening feel eventful, and he’s prompted some fine ensemble work from his cast. Brown and Simpson have a nice little routine going as he interrupts his Japan-bashing to correct her grammar so she won’t sound so “colored,” while she points out that the phrase “people of color” lumps them together with the folks he so casually disparages (“We’re colored people again, but this time we’ve got company”). Special kudos are due Richard Pilcher for his poignantly comic turn as an inebriated (or as he puts it, “redefined by alcohol”) waiter. And Barricklo makes the irritating title character about as empathetic as can reasonably be expected.

Jos. B. Musumeci Jr.’s metallic restaurant setting is a knockout, particularly when it deconstructs at intermission. Marianne Meadows’ intermittently apocalyptic lighting, and Neil J. McFadden’s omnipresent sound design are also assets. But neither production effects nor sensitive performances can entirely redeem the evening, or relieve an audience’s gnawing suspicion, as the lights finally fade, that the joke was on them.CP