For anyone with a soft spot for the history of American show business, and especially the years of practiced Vaudevillians, the theatrical team of Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, purveying their shtick in Greater Tuna at the La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts through April 29, will warm the heart as it loosens the laughs.
Legend has it that Greater Tuna began in 1981 when its three creators — Williams, Sears and director Ed Howard — began ad-libbing on a political cartoon at a party. In a couple of years they had a long-running Off Broadway hit. The show would spin off two sequels, merit an HBO taping with Norman Lear directing, earn a command performance at the White House, and an overseas run.
After more than 25 years, Sears and Williams give no indication that they are running out of gas or need their timing adjusted. If they are aging further out of the youngest roles, it’s only to slide more gracefully into the older ones. The quick changes never snag, allowing a seamless flow of 20 odd characters with names like Arles Struvie, Petey Fisk, Phinas Blye, R.R. Snavely, and Thurston Wheelis to introduce another generation to “the third smallest town in Texas.”
The show roughly follows one day in the life of Greater Tuna as experienced by its most colorful citizens. From sign-on to sign-off at the local radio station, we eavesdrop on men and women, boys and girls, and the pious and profane.
Every character gets special care to appear both real and real funny. The smaller Williams provides the most range, playing all the children and a diversity of adults. The larger Sears, however, reveals himself as a master comedic actor.
Most impressive are two matrons who Sears keeps rooted in character. His Bertha Bumille and Aunt Pearl Burras are all the more hilarious because of the naturalness Sears brings to them. These are not camp female impersonations or exaggerations like Monty Python's bedraggled bitties. This is just good acting. A century ago these stage personas would have ranked him with Fields, Lahr, Wynn, and of course Oliver Hardy, whom he recalls without ever imitating.
In a world now familiar more with the humor of Jeff Foxworthy, Larry the Cable Guy, and the gloss of New Country music, and less with the authentic corn of Hee Haw and Minnie Pearl, this script may seem a bit dated. It also hints that there will be some bigger pay off from the various storylines that are vaguely followed during the two-hour, two-act performance. However, it does not add up to more than a lot of vignettes.
The flirtation with the wholly unfunny world of racism and high school censorship, coming through the mouths of people we are ready to embrace, makes for some discomfiture. Nevertheless, these two performers keep it light and funny. They are masters of an important slice of stage comedy. A quarter century out of the can, this Tuna retains its freshness, and Williams and Sears their spot in theater history.
CREDITS By Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, directed by Mr. Howard WITH Jaston Williams and Joe Sears PRODUCTION Kevin Rupnik, set; Linda Fisher, costumes; Ken Huncovsky, sound; Root Choyce, lights/stage management La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts April 13-29 (reviewed 4/14)