Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Petri dish of a play: Small-town Texas grows a peculiar culture in Beef & Boards' "Greater Tuna"

It's tempting to read into the production of "Greater Tuna" on the cusp of the New Year a politically
Townsladies Vera and Pearl look down witheringly on the deceased Judge.
tinged scaling back. It feels like a narrowing in ambition, scope, and humanity from the company's counterpart at the turn of last year, the somewhat perplexing but captivating murder-mystery-comedy "Shear Madness."

Seen Saturday night at Beef & Boards Dinner Theatre, "Greater Tuna" winds down the farcical elements to a couple of virtuoso displays in the realm of caricature, handled with energetic abandon by B&B favorites Jeff Stockberger and Eddie Curry.

It's difficult to put aside the play's barrage of comic barbs directed at small-town life, particularly with conventionally benighted Texas as the exclusive target. Urban for almost my whole life, I may appear oddly ill-at-ease about the dismissal urbanites often direct toward America in the boondocks. "Greater Tuna" occasioned much discomfort on that score.

Bertha (Eddie Curry) upbraids Charlene (Jeff Stockberger).
Framed by claustrophobically folksy broadcasts from the local radio station, with its puny wattage in the high three figures, "Greater Tuna" presents a series of mostly noisy, often bizarre characters who rarely stray into intelligence. Frankly, with the dubious exception of some vengeful scheming by Tuna's juvenile delinquent, the town's residents are dumb as rocks. And I'm entertaining the possibility that I've just insulted rocks.

Okay, that personal cringing is out of the way. Main thing on the positive side: Stockberger and Curry managed wholeheartedly the rapidly shifting parade of characterizations, aided by four dressing assistants.  That crucial team took a well-deserved curtain call, having helped the co-stars manage wig and garb changes. Continuity was partly assured by patches of offstage dialogue, yet the split-second slides from one character to the next owed much to this assistance as well as the actors' adroitness.

The show that tourists crane necks to see at Munich's New Town Hall.
Playwrights Jaston Williams, Ed Howard and Joe Sears have threaded aspects of two dozen characters' lives through one another, so a kind of narrative skein emerges that stands out much more in Act 2 than in Act 1. Nonetheless, the individual portrayals the two-member cast etches so vividly tend to dominate. Each short scene seems to occupy its own circumscribed and ridiculous universe.

Looking at each scene with fascination (if not as much amusement as intended, however)  brought to mind the experience I had more than a half-century ago in Munich, gazing up at the town-hall clock and watching figures appear and disappear in mechanical succession. That parade of life-size figures also tells a story, but it tends to pale before gawking tourists' fascination with the spectacle itself. What wonder will pop into view next? That's what kept me focused on "Greater Tuna," even as its broad-brush travesty of small-town life rarely tickled my funny bone.

Sheriff interrogates Stanley Bumiller.
Stockberger directs the show, and part of his distinction as Curry's partner is how fully he plays off the other actor's strident housewife Bertha Bumiller to individualize her three children: the dog-smitten Jody, the whiny high-schooler Charlene, and the untamable bully and ne'er-do-well Stanley. True, Stockberger's success doesn't achieve the theatrical magic of allowing us to see him as three real young people, but it certainly hits the mark in rendering three-dimensional caricatures of difficult children.

The play has moments of pathos that suggest a claim to emotional depth. But the playwrights don't seem to have wanted to do more than sketch in the perpetual small-town seesaw between loneliness and true community. And this production is probably unassailable in going for the hellzapoppin flexibility of the company's two seasoned comedians. That's where the heart of "Greater Tuna" beats most strongly.

The rest of the 2018 season is 100 percent musical theater, running from "Mamma Mia!" through "Elf: The Musical."