Tuna, Texas, is one nightmare town--everybody in it is a jerk, a sociopath or a pathetic loser. The townspeople can be amusing, but not amusing enough to make you want to pay them a visit. And maybe that's what's wrong with Greater Tuna, now in a popular revival at the Vogue Theatre. It's hard to like most of these characters at all. We laugh at these people because we disdain them--their ambitions, motives and actions are either petty or despicable, and as goofy as they are, they're a mean-spirited bunch.
Maybe it's writers Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard who are the real mean-spirited bunch. The easiest kind of comedy, after all, is condescension. And as we all gaze down our noses at philanthropist Petey Fisk, groan at the hypocrisy and salesmanship of Reverend Spikes or pity the chubby high school girl Charlene Bumiller (who has tried for seven years to make cheerleader), you have to wonder why we're all laughing.
There's no plot here, so what we watch for two hours as Bryan A. Foster and Duane Black play twenty different roles is a series of interrelated stories--kind of a slice of ordinary Tuna life. The guys first appear as Thurston Wheelis (Foster) and Arles Struvie (Black), radio personalities on OKKK radio, announcing the winning essays in the local high school contest--essays like "Human Rights: Why Bother?" and "The Other Side of Bigotry." We know right away what the politics of this measly little town will be, especially when Arles runs off to relieve himself and Didi Snavely (Black in drag), owner of Didi's Weapons, appears to do a radio commercial. Her motto: "If Didi's Can't Kill It, Nothing Can."
Tuna weather is almost as exasperating as its population--according to the OKKK weather report, there will be rain, followed by heat and high humidity, followed by dust storms, followed by rain. And more rain. Meanwhile, the town drunk has spotted a UFO and while no one believes him, the UFO shows up later in the evening with a certain dramatic flair.
Foster does some of the most abrasive characters--his big-hipped Bertha Bumiller is a disgruntled housewife with three misfit teenagers (all played by Black) who cooks large, greasy breakfasts and threatens the lives of homeless dogs if the Tuna Humane Society's Petey Fisk gives any more puppies to her youngest son. Foster's craggy face supports a particularly gruesome wig with frightening verity--this is one ugly dowager. But Foster's Pearl Burras, an old lady with a penchant for poisoning dogs, is even more horribly real--especially when he contorts his face into a mask of old age. This scene is the out-and-out sickest of the evening, but Foster's Reverend Spikes is ultimately more disagreeable than poor old Pearl. And when Foster comes on as bullying father and ne'er-do-well husband Hank Bumiller, the comedy suddenly veers into nasty naturalism.
Black carries the more sympathetic characters, like the lisping Petey and the troubled, murderous teenager Stanley Bumiller, with equal ingenuity. His bouncy, hopeless Charlene is all girlish mannerisms, while his aging Vera Carp orders her errant offspring around by smacking her purse and barking orders like a samurai in skirts. Black projects a winning sweetness where necessary, a genial naivete, and an undeniable grace when he plays women. His is a solidly crafted performance.
Director Michael Duran has created a tight, physically stimulating production that keeps the twenty citizens of Tuna moving on and off stage in smooth, apparently unhurried cycles. And both Foster and Black have gone to extremes to devise a variety of quirks for the characters they play. They change characters and costumes with such lightning speed and fascinating attention to detail that the whole thing comes off a little like a magic show. Unfortunately, as with most magic shows, the sense of awe at the trickery is about all there is to take away with you.
Greater Tuna, through September at the Vogue Theatre, 1465 South Pearl Street, 765-2771.