To review dramatist/lyricist/composer Ethan Lipton’s Tumacho almost feels like missing the point of this endearingly oddball “play with songs,” a comic pastiche of Western and horror tropes that is essentially the theatrical equivalent of an old Hollywood B-movie. Its major goal is to shamelessly please the audience, something it largely achieves through top-notch performances and an abiding strangeness, if not necessarily a consistent quality of jokes or characterizations or plotting. Obviously, all of the latter should matter, but the fact that it doesn’t only attests to the show’s bizarre charm.
Immeasurably contributing to this off-kilter appeal is the actors’ steadfast refusal to wink at any of the ludicrous goings-on, a flinty resolve director Leigh Silverman shares. Despite a choir of singing cacti and a three-legged stuffed coyote masquerading as a dog, nothing is a laughing matter for the despondent residents of Lipton’s “lousy little town,” as the wanton gunslinger Bill Yardley (Andrew Garman) ineluctably picks them off one-by-one for the simple reason that he enjoys doing it. Of course, in a typical Western, the proverbial good guy with a gun would soon ride into town to serve as an avenging angel, but this isn’t a place that welcomes angels.
No gruff outsider is going to appear over the horizon to save the people Yardley hasn’t killed yet, a pretty sorry lot that includes the feckless Mayor Evans (John Ellison Conlee), vainly unperturbed about his town’s population drop from “near a thousand people” to “twenty on a good day”; Alice (Layla Khoshnoudi), the lonely barkeep; Sam (Bill Buell), an old coot given to blurting out seemingly nonsensical prophecies; Prudence (Randy Danson), the community’s presiding prig; Chappy (Andy Grotelueschen), a lovelorn dunce; or the overburdened Doc Alonzo (Gibson Frazier), who, after announcing that Yardley has just murdered the town’s eighteen-year-old sheriff, adds that the lawman actually died from the callow combination of “too many principles” and “too little fear.”
This snippet of quintessentially grim frontier philosophizing suggests a turn from the ridiculous to the satiric is in the offing, a suspicion that is reinforced after Catalina (Phillipa Soo), the play’s pistol-packing hero with a long-simmering hatred of Yardley, accidentally shoots an innocent bystander (Chinaza Uche) instead. But, if Lipton has deeper thoughts about America’s sad history of violence, they’re eventually buried under a second layer of genre tomfoolery that makes it impossible to take anything else that happens seriously. Maybe that’s not what Lipton completely wants, but it’s what having a bloodthirsty spirit take over the body of one of your characters gets you.
This infernal visitor is the titular Tumacho whose vampiric ways allow him to transform most of the town into his zombified slaves, though, unlike Yardley, there is an explanation for Tumacho’s evil; unfortunately, it’s not a particularly compelling one. Still, it’s much less of a yawner than the drawn-out scene of Tumacho voraciously consuming a series of culinary delights down to the literal bone, a sight gag that Silverman paces well but to quickly diminishing returns.
The joke-to-laugh ratio is much stronger pre-demonic possession when Lipton’s fondness for vaudevillian humor melds more naturally with his Wild West archetypes, possibly because Lipton knows them better or perhaps because it’s just too difficult to graft an Abbott-and-Costello sensibility onto stories about eating people’s hearts. The comedy duo’s classic “Who’s on first?” routine particularly comes to mind during a futile exchange between the apparently well-read Catalina and a confused Chappy over the meaning of the word “ineffable.” Silverman also evinces brave patience in letting Conlee, the most hilariously self-assured performer in a terrific ensemble, squeeze out every possible laugh from a bit where the mayor slowly drinks an entire glass of water as a stalling tactic. Perhaps the joke goes on a couple of ticks too long, but its teasing audacity earns Conlee and Silverman plenty of leeway.
Originally debuting in 2016 as part of Clubbed Thumb’s Summerworks festival, Tumacho is actually a revival for the ever-adventurous theater company with several of the previous actors, like Conlee, returning for a second run, suggesting that, whatever the play’s flaws, a lot of smart and talented people have a soft spot for it. That’s certainly reflected in the tremendous creative attention lavished on the production. Against a fiery desert backdrop, scenic designer David Zinn’s saloon set looks like an oasis in the middle of hell, while Jen Schriever’s evocative lighting beautifully captures each forsaken detail.
On the sillier side of the ledger, Tyler Kieffer has a lot of lowbrow fun bringing the show to aural life, best exemplified by one character’s torrential bout of offstage urination. Raphael Mishler’s narrative-advancing puppets are also worth a few smiles, and Devario D. Simmons and Anita Yavich’s period-rich costumes are worth a few more. It’s the actors, however, that are most responsible for elevating Tumacho above its limitations through an infectious amiability that is most potent whenever they’re singing one of Lipton’s throwaway ditties, especially in their cactus hats.
Tumacho (through March 12, 2020)
The Connelly Theater, 220 East 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-260-0153 or visit http://www.clubbedthumb.org
Running time: one hour and 30 minutes without an intermission