Review: 'Greater Tuna' at Chestnut Street Playhouse

Tony Palmieri

  • Connecticut Critic

Greater Tuna, which is part one of Jaston Williams’, Joe Sears’ and Ed Howard’s four “Tuna Plays” is a raucous, politically-incorrect romp through the fictional town of Tuna, Texas, through the lens of many of its eccentric inhabitants. Director Shane Kegler aptly quotes comedian Louis CK in his Director’s Notes, “Offending people is a necessary and healthy act. Every time you say something that’s offensive to another person, you just caused a discussion. You just forced them to have to think.” 

I was very excited to take the drive out to Chestnut Street Playhouse to see this show. Though it was written in the early eighties, the issues it tackles, from racism to gun control to politics, are still relevant today. As the action unfolds and the characters draw us into the daily struggles of their small-town lives, we realize quickly that the irreverent comedy carries a deeper, and sometimes darker, message.

My favorite part about this show is that it features only two actors, each playing ten different characters. Ever since seeing Kathy Najimi and Mo Gaffney’s two-woman show, Parallel Lives, this sort of play has intrigued me; asking an actor to morph between characters at the drop of a hat is the truest test of commitment and talent. Scott Stephen Kegler (brother to director Shane and henceforth referred to as Kegler-the-actor) and Nate Rumney do not disappoint.  At turns hilarious and disturbing, they embody radio hosts (on the station Radio OKKK), mothers, evangelicals, angsty teens and a host of other characters brilliantly. Kegler-the-actor’s strengths lie in his vocal range and his expressive face – often inciting laughter without a word. Rumney’s elastic physicality is his strong suit, allowing him to change from an uptight woman to a tough teenager on a dime. Kegler-the-director has wisely cast two actors with great presence and has fine-tuned their performances well, keeping the costume and set changes simple and the pace fast.

My only issue with the play is in the script itself. Through its impertinent satire, it seeks to point out the ridiculousness and hypocrisy of a mindset that supports racism, gun violence, political corruption and religious zealotry – and it does so, but in my opinion, it gets in its own way. From the start, with Radio OKKK, we know what we are in for. We know we will, for two hours, hear hilarious commentary on racism, but knowing it from the beginning leaves little room for revelation. This holds true for many of the play’s main messages; when each storyline hits its intended crescendo, the moment of “a-ha” is missing. The heavy handedness of the build-up has tipped the show’s proverbial hat. It is, for me, the difference between South Park and Family Guy – both satirical comedies with social and political messages. South Park consistently delivers the “whoa, I didn’t see that coming” moment – the moment where we recognize ourselves and are surprised by what we see, whereas Family Guy relies on ridicule and non-sequiturs to deliver its messages. I want each story to build to its eventual peak in a way that honors its intention; the ideas (and the jokes) are there, but the build is not. With the wrong actors, I believe that the show could easily tank. Luckily, that is not the case with this production.

With that in mind, I confidently recommend seeing this production – particularly in our current political climate. Because we need a break – a break from the seriousness and turmoil, an opportunity to look at the world around us and laugh at it, even if it’s just for a couple of hours.