A roller coaster ride

Reno Little Theater’s A Thurber Carnival has its ups and downs

The cast of Reno Little Theater’s <i>A Thurber Carnival</i>.

The cast of Reno Little Theater’s A Thurber Carnival.

Photo by David Robert

Rated 3.0

Sometimes, it’s hard to tell if the success or failure of a production has more to do with the choice of the play, rather than the acting or directing. In the case of Reno Little Theater’s production of A Thurber Carnival, a series of short skits by mid-century author James Thurber that appeared on Broadway in 1960, you’re almost forced to focus on the writing. After all, it is a showcase of Thurber’s works.

I found that Thurber’s sense of humor translated well for me about half the time, but the other half left me confused or bored. For example, at the end of “Casuals of the Keys,” a character exclaims, “What are the Athletics doing in Kansas City?” Instead of laughing, I’m thinking, “When were the Oakland A’s ever in Kansas, and why would I care?”

The opening and closing skits, “Word Dance Part I” and “Word Dance Part II,” also did little for me. The listless dancing of some of the performers certainly didn’t help, but the main problem was that the one-liners were quite outdated and sprinkled liberally with the cheerful sexism the Leave it to Beaver era is known for.

At other times, however, I found myself cracking up at Thurber’s oddball humor. In “If Grant Had Been Drinking at Appomattox,” Yankee general Ulysses S. Grant (Kirk Gardner) has just woken up with a monster hangover and is fumbling his way through the Confederacy’s attempt to surrender to the North. Watching Grant stumble around looking for a missing sock and take big swigs out of a bottle of Jack Daniels was priceless.

“The Pet Department” was another skit that had me rolling. In it, a pet psychiatrist with a German accent—which, perhaps deliberately, sounded remarkably like Jim Carrey’s dolphin trainer in Ace Ventura: Pet Detective—looks at pictures of people’s pets and explains what’s wrong with them. Thurber’s drawings of the screwed-up pets are half the fun, and Kevin Sak’s manic energy as the psychiatrist keeps the skit barreling merrily along.

Not all of Thurber’s skits are meant to be laughed at, though, such as “The Last Flower,” narrated by Diane Nichols. A slide show of Thurber’s drawings illustrate a fable about war and the inhumanity of civilization. Except for an inexplicably hilarious drawing of evil bunnies attacking defenseless humans, the story touched my heart with its simple message of nonviolence and love. As I left the room during intermission, I heard a girl of maybe 6 or 7 telling her mother, “That was a good story!” and it gave me a momentary sense of hope for the future.

As for the future of Reno Little Theater, it’s looking brighter than I previously thought, especially if Kirk Gardner is cast often and well. This accountant by day is a delight to watch, and he’s easy on the eyes, too, bearing a striking resemblance to Rupert Everett. RLT veteran Michael Peters was also fun to watch, although I was surprised at how few roles he was cast in. I’m not sure why Peters was cast so sparingly, but I hope the seasoned actor gets more stage time in the future.

As for Craig Moss’ choice of play for his directorial debut, I’m torn. I might have enjoyed A Thurber Carnival more if I identified with Thurber’s era better, so I encourage older theatergoers to give it a shot and tell me what I missed.