By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
You'll have to take the afternoon off, and you should, to see the splendid new production of Greater Tuna at the Bath House Cultural Center. One Thirty Productions performs only at 1:30 p.m., and the company has found success with their matinee-only format.
The house was packed for the opening performance the other day of Tuna, first of the four two-man comedies about the residents of "the third-smallest town in Texas," written by Joe Sears, Jaston Williams and Ed Howard. Since its debut in Austin in 1981 (and then Off-Broadway a year later), Greater Tuna, the greatest of the quartet, has become one of the most-produced scripts in community theater. The original stars, Sears and Williams, toured with it on and off until just last year, but they're pretty much retired from the road now. So if you've never seen the play or never seen it done by professional actors who do it as well as Sears and Williams, you need to see One Thirty's Larry Randolph and Dwight Sandel.
Both of these actors have performed Greater Tuna before. Randolph spent three years in the San Francisco production in the 1980s (one of his co-stars was the late Michael Jeter). Sandel did it at Dallas Repertory Theatre in 1985. The genius of the Tuna construct is that the age of its actors doesn't matter as long as they have the energy to meet the demands of the two-hour show. Its 20 characters (10 per actor) range from teens to senior citizens. The quick costume changes, done to perfection at the Bath House, are a big part of the fun.
Directed by One Thirty co-founder Gene Raye Price, Randolph and Sandel hit every laugh line with the ease of the seasoned pros they are, but these guys also relish Tuna's overlapping voices, snappy timing and languorous drawls. They're best together as the two-bit morning radio hosts Thurston Wheelis (Randolph) and Arles Struvie (Sandel), who celebrate the winner of the high school essay contest, a ditty titled "The Other Side of Bigotry." Sandel is hilarious as squinty Vera Carp, leader of the town's "Smut Snatchers of the New Order." She chairs a meeting at the Coweta Baptist Church to discuss censoring library books and exorcising the word "balls" from the high school's dictionaries. And everybody except Aunt Pearl Burras (Randolph) is mourning the sudden passing of an elderly local judge, found dead wearing a rather flamboyant article of women's clothing.
Everyone who's ever lived in a small town, or been forced to visit relatives in one, will find something or someone to relate to in Greater Tuna: the gossipy, pious biddies; the emphasis on cheerleading over actual education; the little scandals that bubble up and get everybody talking. What's different about One Thirty's take is how much heart Randolph and Sandel bring to it. Sandel gets right at the loser vibe of reform school dropout Stanley Bumiller, who sums up the collective IQ of Tuna, Texas: "They should put a tax on stupidity." But the actor also finds a lovely vulnerability as young Petey Fisk, Tuna's animal-rescuing hero, determined to save a rat terrier named "Yippy" from the needle.
For all its bitter commentary on small minds in small towns, this Greater Tuna also puts a little extra emphasis on the heart.