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A Tuna Christmas (12/15/1994 - 01/01/1995)


New York Times: "Christmas in a Quirky Texas Town Where 1+1=22"

If your Christmas holidays have a way of turning out badly, take heart. Things are worse in Tuna, Tex., the state's third-smallest hamlet, where good cheer, always in short supply, is threatening to dry up altogether.

The annual lawn display competition, sponsored by radio station OKKK, is being sabotaged by someone known only as the Christmas Phantom. The Smut Snatchers are trying to have "Silent Night" banned on the ground that decent people don't sing about "round, young virgins." And if the electric company makes good on its promise to shut off the juice, the Tuna Little Theater's production of "A Christmas Carol" (by Charlie Dickens) will close before it opens.

Even Bertha Bumiller, usually the soul of patience, is at her wits' end with her children. "Get down here now," she barks at her sullen daughter, "or I'll put on the Andy Williams album."

These and other acts of seasonal spite are chronicled in "A Tuna Christmas," which made it to the Booth Theater last night, after having played just about every place else in the country. Well, there's no reason Broadway shouldn't be let in on the fun. The show, really just a series of interconnected sketches, is a hoot. The cast, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, is two hoots. Each portrays 11 residents of Tuna -- young and old, male and female, nasty and nastier -- which means they are as busy backstage changing costumes and wigs as they are onstage striking attitudes, trading put-downs and attempting, with meager success, to get in a festive mood.

Written by Mr. Williams, Mr. Sears and their director, Ed Howard, "A Tuna Christmas" is the sequel to "Greater Tuna," which was hatched in 1980, when the Moral Majority was throwing its weight around. That first depiction of Tuna, as a bastion of narrow-mindedness, bigotry and bouffant hairdos, had a sharp satirical edge that doesn't seem quite as cutting on the second go-round. Familiarity is partly to blame, but what was already a hearty spirit of exaggeration has also got out of hand in places. The actors now appear more willing to sacrifice a barbed-wire truth for a belly laugh. That's pretty much it for caveats on my part, though.

Simply watching Mr. Sears and Mr. Williams assume new identities every few minutes is entertainment enough. By the time they've shown us what's going on at the radio station, Didi Snavely's used-weapons store (motto: "If we can't kill it, it's immortal"), the school gym, the Tastee Kreme and assorted homes, Tuna has acquired a dusty reality all its own. Grovers Corners it ain't. But it's a real American world where people are doing their darndest to get from one disappointment to the next, hold the sheriff at bay and scare off the blue jays before they devour the eggs in the henhouse.

Although the most noteworthy roles are female, it would be wrong to think of "A Tuna Christmas" as a drag show. It's too shrewdly observed for that. Mr. Sears, a portly man whose face has a sweet, woebegone quality, deserves at least two Tony nominations for best actress: one for gallant Bertha Bumiller, who manages to keep her chins up despite a philandering husband and three obstreperous children; the other for Aunt Pearl Burras, a prim big-bosomed matron who walks softly but carries a big cane.

Mr. Williams, donning cat glasses and smiling a razor-blade smile, is only slightly less memorable as Vera Carp, the wealthy town zealot who has won the Yultetide lawn display competition 14 Yules in a row and fully intends to make it 15. He's also Didi Snavely, who may not be the last of the big-time smokers, but is definitely the last of the deep inhalers and possesses the lowest voice in Tuna. As a rule, Mr. Williams plays the more neurotic, driven types. Mr. Sears excels at long-sufferers and can suggest a character's whole biography with a sigh.

Among the other denizens: Inita Goodwin and Helen Bedd, two don't-mess-with-me waitresses at the Tastee Kreme, who see themselves as "aspiring career women"; Petey Fisk, Tuna's indefatigable one-man animal-rescue league, and Joe Bob Lipsey, the temperamental director of the Tuna Little Theater, who has had it up to his gold-chain necklace with "A Christmas Carol." "I haven't had this many problems," he snaps, "since the all-white production of 'Raisin in the Sun.' "

Mr. Sears and Mr. Williams know these people to the core. They also know how little it takes -- a tone, a stance, a pair of poinsettia earrings -- to animate them. While the characterizations are instant -- and instantly recognizable -- they're not always as two-dimensional as you might suspect. Mr. Howard has made sure that the fleeting moments of heartache and bewilderment are not eclipsed by the outbursts of temper and petulance.

Loren Sherman has designed the set, an all-purpose room plopped down in the wide-open Texas spaces, and decorated it with a variety of Christmas trees of dubious taste. Judy Rasmuson's efficient lighting extends, I presume, to the exploding Christmas tree bulbs. Best of all are Linda Fisher's costumes, each one a miniature social critique, brilliantly conceived on the principle that you are what you wear.

There's no point insisting on it, because the actors don't, but Tuna is a town built on sand and desperation. Exultant choirs and happy sleigh bells are not part of the holidays there and the gifts (which include a cologne called "Compromise") look to be uninspired. All is not lost, though.

Lowering her Baptist guard, Bertha Bumiller will allow herself to down a few cups of spiked punch at the OKKK Christmas party. Arles Struvie, one of the station's laconic broadcasters, will screw up his courage and invite her to dance. And as the lights fade on that starriest of starry nights, two lost souls will do the box step.

New York Times

Variety: "A Tuna Christmas"

The late John Henry Faulk, the Texas-born radio raconteur and All-American hero to whom "A Tuna Christmas" is dedicated, most certainly would have relished the tribute from Jaston Williams and Joe Sears. Faulk, who successfully took on CBS after being blacklisted near the end of the McCarthy era, was a lifelong pinprick in the balloons of pomposity, sanctimony, self-importance and other stupidities, and a student and friend of the great folk historian Alan Lomax. There's a direct link between them and the 22 characters in the fictional town of Tuna, Texas, played with tremendous affection by Williams and Sears: They are people whose small, sometimes sorry lives are given dignity and even a measure of meaning in the telling of their stories.

Sears and Williams had a hit in the early '80s with "Greater Tuna," and this sequel has been knocking around quite successfully for several years.

Judging by the audience familiarity with such characters as Bertha Bumiller (Sears), who heads up Smutsnatchers of the New Order while waiting for the husband who never comes home, and Didi Snavely (Williams), who sells "used weaponry for the car, the home, the workplace," the Tuna townfolk have a major cult following, and they're not shortchanged here.

As with the original show, the focal point of "A Tuna Christmas" is radio station OKKK, where Thurston Wheelis (Sears) and Arles Struvie (Williams) provide a running commentary on life in Tuna, imagining, for example, a Nativity that includes not only the usual people and creatures, but also Santa Claus, Bing Crosby, the Grinch Who Stole Christmas and Natalie Wood.

The hosts are in the thick of the annual OKKK Yard Display contest, and a Christmas Phantom has been doing terrible things to some of the contenders.

This is a culture based on Frito Pies and Diet Dr Pepper, in which Bertha can announce to her son that "censorship is as American as apple pie, so shut up," busybodies excise the dirty words from Christmas carols, and one sure way to be taken seriously is to threaten to put on the Andy Williams Christmas album.

Sears and Williams spend a lot of the evening in drag, though in truth there's nothing at all camp about the show, which is closer in spirit to vaudeville.

Physically, they're descendants of Abbott & Costello or Laurel & Hardy, Sears being large and well-padded, Williams lean and almost dainty.

Several scenes seem constructed just to show off how quickly the actors can switch characters and sexes, which they do with aplomb on Loren Sherman's simple set, for which there are nearly as many Christmas trees as characters whizzing on and off.

To the extent that there is a plot to "A Tuna Christmas," it concerns the winner of the Yard Display contest and the budding romance between Bertha and Arles.

Not every joke hits its mark, and some are reprised too often for their own good. Nevertheless, "A Tuna Christmas" is good fun, and don't be surprised if some of these folks stay with you longer than you'd have suspected.


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