David Coffee calls it a "nudge show."
"It is one of those shows where you look out at the audience and you see them doing this," says the actor, miming the quick elbow to the ribs, followed by the knowing nod that is such a common sight at Texas productions of Greater Tuna, the ever-popular sendup of Tuna, the fictitious, third-smallest town in our state.
Coffee will be playing half of Tuna's denizens when Casa Mañana presents a short run (six performances) of the comedy beginning Thursday and running through Sunday. The rest of the loony denizens will be brought to life by Jonathan Beck Reed, an Oklahoma City-based actor who will be reuniting with Coffee. The pair did the show in Reed's hometown in 2008.
"When you do the Tuna shows here [in Texas], it is a different experience. It's a love fest," says Coffee, explaining the nudge factor. "Almost everybody sees a friend or relative or even themselves in these characters. I truly know them and grew up with them."
Indeed, Greater Tuna has been making us nudge the person in the neighboring seat since 1981, when the stereotype-skewering satire debuted in Austin. It ran off-Broadway and, at the height of its popularity (the mid-1980s), it claimed to be the most produced show in America. That original show, and its three sequels ( A Tuna Christmas; Red, White and Tuna; and Tuna Does Vegas), have been performed without cease on stages across the country ever since.
The track record of the "Tuna" series would be impressive for any production, but it is especially amazing when you consider how difficult each show is to perform. All four require two actors (although some productions use more) to play several male and female characters of various ages while negotiating constant costume and location changes.
A new era
The "Tuna" shows are often presented by their creators, actors Jaston Williams and Joe Sears, and director Ed Howard. The team has been especially careful about releasing performance rights to others in their home state.
But we may be seeing the end of an era with this production. Coffee said that Sears has been dealing with health issues in recent years and is not as active with the shows as he has been in the past. So this Casa production may mark the beginning of more productions in professional houses that do not feature the men who made it all happen.
But that doesn't mean that Coffee and Reed will try to be exactly like the original stars.
"I can't do what they do. I'm a different person," says Coffee, who has developed a tremendous reputation and following in North Texas for his fine comedic performances.
"I approach it like any other role. You either know somebody like that, or you find a characteristic you can grab onto. But, really, the characters are so well written, you don't have to worry about them."
Timing is everything
What Coffee and Reed do have to worry about, however, are the quick changes of clothing the show demands.
"The timing is the most important thing in the show, both onstage and backstage," says Coffee, who recently triumphed as Falstaff in the Trinity Shakespeare Festival's presentation of The Merry Wives of Windsor.
"All the costume changes are choreographed. Everything is rigged. The costumes are cut so that they come on and off easily. When we did it in Oklahoma, we both had two dressers helping us backstage. So you step out of this one and into that one and, boom, you are a new character."
Coffee, who will be taking on the roles usually done by Sears, finds it impossible to select any one Tuna-ite as his favorite in the show, but Reed has a top three.
"My favorite is Arlis [Struvie], because he's the town crier. He's one of these old men everybody loves," says Reed, who has a long list of national tours to his credit, but who is working here for the first time. "And I love Petey [Fisk] because he's the one that allows me to show some depth. He desperately wants to save the world. And I also love Stanley Bumiller, because he's the smartest guy in town."
You don't usually think about the term "smart" being applied to anyone in a show with as low an IQ as Greater Tuna, but, in separate interviews, both Coffee and Reed lauded the intelligence of the script. Coffee likened the show to Our Town, while Reed finds it to be "small-town Noel Coward."
"The material is easy to respect because the characters are so well drawn. They could be from anywhere," says Reed, who first performed this show in 1985. "I never want to make fun of them. I just want to present them."