Halsted Theatre Centre

Greater Tuna would have been a big hit at my high school, where the easiest way to get a laugh was to joke about the kind of people who shop at K-mart. You know, the ones with the bouffant hairdos and the loud polyester pants who spend half their time at the store shouting at their absolutely unmanageable kids. If you imitated them at lunch you could just about guarantee someone at the table would laugh so hard they’d practically pass a sandwich through their nose. Greater Tuna would have supplied us with jokes for months.

The names alone, in this loosely structured slice of small-town life, would have started us chuckling away. Thurston Wheelis. Arles Sturvie. Didi Snavely. (Giggle.) Vera Carp. Connie Carp! VIRGIL Carp! (Snicker, snicker.) What kind of people (guffaw) would name their son Virgil?

A lot of what I would have thought was hilarious in high school seems tedious now. Especially comedies like Greater Tuna that depend so much upon wildly distorted stereotypes for their humor. This kind of mean-spirited, hopelessly intolerant comedy just isn’t as funny as the play’s coauthors–Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, and Ed Howard–seem to think it is. Even when the people they make fun of are the crew of bigots and small-minded folk who populate Tuna, the third smallest town in Texas.

Tuna has an active KKK, a vocal book-censoring committee (the “Smut Snatchers of the New Order”), and frequent record-burning get-togethers at the Baptist church. Tuna also boasts of having a “used weapons dealer,” who advertises on the radio that all of his weapons are “absolutely guaranteed to kill,” and a local character named Pearl Burras, whose hobby of feeding strychnine to any dog who strays into her chicken yard backfires when she accidentally poisons her husband’s prize bird dog, Ripper. Pearl’s means of avoiding blame–having her nephew drive over the dead dog–makes for one of the better moments in this play.

Unfortunately, most of the play does not rise to the dark comic heights of Pearl’s poisonings or the extended scene at the funeral of a detested judge who seems to have been wearing a woman’s swimsuit when he died. More often than not the authors are content to depend on easy laughs. Incompetent local news broadcasts–“Well, folks, I tell you–we’ve lost the news.” An insufferable call-in radio show and its host, who keeps asking callers to turn down their radios. A local drunk who’s seen a UFO, though no one believes him because he’s the local drunk.

Too much of the show is geared to people who think the only thing funnier than the way country people talk is the way they dress. Sure, lime green polyester pantsuits, orange print blouses, and rhinestone-encrusted cat’s-eye glasses are good for a laugh. But something’s missing when so much of the show depends on getting laughs from Didi Snavely’s dirty red-and-white plastic raincoat, Vera Carp’s pillbox hat, and Petey Fisk’s wool cap with the flaps that cover his ears.

Greater Tuna has TV written all over it. Not only are the play’s short scenes perfectly tuned to the sensibilities and attention spans of your average audience of TV addicts, but nothing happens in the story that challenges the TV-fostered consensus that all small towns in Texas are filled with killers, Klansmen, and Southern Baptist book burners.

Which is a shame, because Brent Briscoe and John Hawkes, who portray all 20 or so characters in the play, certainly work very hard for the handful of laughs they get, performing miraculous costume changes and creating distinct and convincing characters along the way. Interestingly enough, both the heavyset Briscoe and the very thin Hawkes are at their best when they’re in drag. Briscoe’s portrayal of Pearl and her more sympathetic sister Bertha is uncanny and very funny, although Briscoe has clearly borrowed a few licks from Jonathan Winters. Hawkes’s bitchy Vera Carp is wonderful. It’s hard not to wonder what this pair of talented comic actors would have been able to do with a better script. Just as it’s hard not to ask whether there’s anything sadder in theater than watching a couple of actors killing themselves to make a show seem funnier and better than it really is–and failing.