FORT WORTH -- We are often told that, in comedy, timing is everything.
By that measure, Camping With Gasoline, the new one-man show written and performed by Greater Tuna co-creator Jaston Williams, both hits and misses.
There was certainly nothing wrong with the comic timing displayed by Williams when delivering his text in the first of two performances at Casa Manana on Saturday. The well-seasoned jester from the Panhandle knows how to maintain the right rhythms and cadences even when working alone.
The structure of this show, directed by Scott Kanoff, is much more literary than theatrical. The program notes tell us that Williams is working on a novel, and this recitation sounds like three of its chapters. Sporting a gray suit and working on a stage set with only three chairs and two music stands holding scripts, Williams rolls out a trio of "mostly true" stories that chart his path from being a boy to becoming the adoptive parent of a boy.
The first is a Greater Tuna-esque Christmas ramble called "Blood and Holly," in which Williams makes it clear that his clan could easily have inspired Robert Earl Keen's dysfunctional holiday classic, Merry Christmas from the Family. The presentation of it, during which Williams moves from chair to chair, sometimes reading, sometimes pacing the stage, is much more like a staged reading of a book or short story than a comedic monologue. Overall, this slaying of some of Yuletide's most sacred cows (he unflinchingly throws Burl Ives under Santa's sled, for example) comes across like Jean Shepherd-comes-to-the-prairie.
The second, "Saved By the Boy," is a funny, but ultimately touching, account of his personal journey to fatherhood -- an odyssey which took him far beyond his native West Texas. Like the other segments, Williams first sets the scene with prosaic descriptions. Then, like a painter who fills in his background before adding the figures, he populates these landscapes with colorful characters. In so doing, he makes us think that this is what Garrison Keillor would sound like if he had grown up in Lubbock instead of in the middle of all those lakes.
It is in the final story, however, that Williams' timing is off -- albeit through no fault of his own.
That reminiscence, which gives this stage work its title and comprises the entire second act, reaches back to Williams' days as a Boy Scout. It is a chronicle filled with hilarious rites-of-passage and inept scouting. But the real point of this hike through the past is Williams' memory of how he and his cohorts unexpectedly emerged as grief counselors for one of their fellows while braving the wilds of camp.
It is a story well-told and filled with heart. But, sad to say, recent revelations have cast the Boy Scouts in a completely new light. So there is an unintended undercurrent of discomfort when hearing accounts of less-than-perfect scout masters, even though their faults are in no way related to the sort of issues that have arisen lately.
It may be that we need some time before we are really able to fully enjoy this show. Ironically, Williams hints at that when his script acknowledges some controversies related to the scouts and urges us not to lose sight of all the good things about the organization. But in that moment, he appears to be referring to the now mostly forgotten flap about the organization's policies regarding gays that would have been a hot issue when Williams was developing this show.
So maybe we will all be able to completely embrace this stumble down memory lane without qualification at a later date. But until then, the timing is just not right for the largest third of this otherwise laugh-filled bit of personal nostalgia.