Friday, June 20, 2008

Tuna Does Vegas

"Greater Tuna," the comic play about a tiny town in Texas, was written by the two actors Joe Sears and Jaston Williams along with its director Ed Howard, and after debuting in Austin in 1981, the play has never left the stage. In San Francisco during the 1980s, for instance, it ran for seven straight years at the Marines Memorial Theatre. The play spawned two sequels, "A Tuna Christmas" and "Red, White and Tuna," which were also quite successful, and now after a long pause, a fourth installment has hit the Curran Theatre for two weeks with its original actors/writers, entitled "Tuna Does Vegas."

The plays' greatest novelty were their succession of quick costume changes which magically allowed Sears and Williams to play at least 20 different characters in the town, including all the women. In fact, the backstage dressers should have an onstage bow of their own.

Another part of their appeal is that though there is a sophisticated, gay sensbility at work among the creators, they also stay completely true to the sheer eccentricity of their racist, narrow-minded and just plain weird characters who have taken on a life of their own and seem to inhabit the actors rather than the other way around, all overlaid with florid, rapid-fire Texan speech peppered with regional insults that are hilarious. Anybody who has grown up in a small town can generally relate, so that the audiences for the plays tend to be an unusual mixture of gay men and heterosexual couples of all ages.

On the basis of the $40-for-any-seat "preview" I saw on Tuesday night, "Tuna Does Vegas" is the weakest play in the quartet, but it does have its moments and seeing Joe Sears and Jaston Williams play these characters is a bit like seeing National Living Treasures performing their art, which is frankly not to be missed. The production should have the sound mix fixed by that time, too, which was pretty terrible for the preview.

Joe Sears (the Oliver Hardy to Jaston Williams' Stan Laurel) was always the better and more relaxed actor of the two, slipping into Bertha Bumiller's pantsuits with perfect ease, but the years have taken their toll, and Mr. Sears seemed to be having trouble remembering his lines during the preview. Also, his nimbleness has been slowed down by the fact that he's become hugely obese, something he seemed to share with everybody in our row at the Curran Theatre, which was designed for much skinnier people than myself, let alone our seatmates. Still, Jaston Williams has picked up the slack and his Didi Snavely (the gun saleswoman), a character I'm not usually crazy about, almost stole the show. Check it out.

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