Back when I first encountered Greater Tuna, a staple of small companies like South Park Theatre, it just seemed a whimsical view of small-town life -- sort of the Texas version of Lake Wobegon. But after more than six years of George W. Bush and the "religious right" in power, Tuna's cheerful view of small-mindedness has taken on more menacing overtones. At the very least, it's an excoriation of "heartland" values by Broadway-type liberal elites, right?
Actually, Tuna is homegrown Texan and a cottage industry since its original production in 1981, written and performed by Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, with co-playwright Ed Howard directing -- all drawing a caricature of themselves, their families and their hometowns. The trio has expanded the "franchise" into a trilogy, and between the still-touring productions and theaters that appreciate a two-man show with multiple characters, Greater Tuna is the most produced play in the United States, according to the Tuna Web site.
There's not much plot here: dawn to dusk in a small dusty town, anchored on the low-watt radio station OKKK (subtle, huh?), allowing a parade of quirky characters to soliloquize and interact. It may seem lightweight, but for the actors it's a very tough job of nine-second costume changes and jolting characterizations, and South Park's Ronald J. Gmys and Everett Lowe aren't always up to the play's demands. Entrances aren't as sharp as they should be. Even less forgivable, one of the play's funniest bits, about driving over a dead dog -- really, it's hilarious, but it takes too long to explain -- is delivered off stage, probably pre-recorded.
On the other hand, South Park director Lynn DeBree nicely exploits the visual humor, with Lowe towering over Gmys to good effect. Most of the humor is built on characters -- 20 of them on stage (and a few never-seen, never-heard off-stage types). Lowe excels at the broad humor (pun incidental) of the more extreme zanies, especially when in drag. Gmys, on the other hand, can bring out more nuance, from the characters' creepiness to their charm.
After more than a quarter-century, it's the realities, not just the parodies, that make Greater Tuna an undated hit. But while the show is timeless, the biggest joke is that a comedy about self-righteous bigots is still as timely as ever.
Greater Tuna continues through Sept. 2. South Park Theatre, Corrigan Drive and Brownsville Road, South Park. 412- 831-8552 or www.southparktheatre.com