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Celebrating Warm 'Tuna Christmas'


PASADENA — "A Tuna Christmas," at the Pasadena Playhouse, is actually greater than its predecessor, "Greater Tuna."

The same two actors, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, are back, this time playing 11 instead of 10 characters each. All of them live in tiny Tuna, Tex.

It's Christmas Eve instead of the last show's "late-summer day." But, although the weather may be chillier, the comedy is warmer.

Perhaps the Christmas theme brings out a feeling of goodwill. Whatever the cause, there are at least six characters here who are reasonably sympathetic. That may not seem like many out of 22, but it's about five more than I counted the last time I saw "Greater Tuna," at the Westwood Playhouse in 1990, when too many of the laughs seemed cheap and snide.

Many familiar faces are back, led by big Bertha Bumiller (Sears). She's trying her best to look cheerful in her seasonal red and green pantsuit, despite the absence of her no-account husband Hank and the presence of her three kids. Those offspring are again all played by Williams: the reforming delinquent Stanley, the stage-struck Charlene and pet-crazy Jody.

The evening is again introduced by a broadcast from the local radio celebrities, Thurston Wheelis (Sears) and Arles Struvie (Williams). Struvie later emerges as a shoulder for Bertha to cry on and as a potential dancing partner, if they can ignore their Baptist strictures against such goings-on.

Aunt Pearl Burras (Sears) is still wearing her pearls, no matter what the activity. Instead of poisoning dogs this time, she's aiming slingshots at the bluejays--and looking out for her nephew Stanley. Her opposite, when it comes to animal rights, is Petey Fisk (Williams). Don't worry, his new pet Fresno is only half-coyote.

Gun merchant Didi Snavely (Williams) has a deeper voice than ever, after that many more years of smoking. She likes to sing Christmas carols with her own macabre lyrics, but if she has to take a drag while singing, she just skips a few of the words and resumes whenever she can. Her meek husband R.R. (Sears) still sees UFOs.

The writers--Williams, Sears and director Ed Howard--set up a couple of questions that provide mild narrative suspense. Will ostentatious Vera Carp (Williams) win the Christmas-lawn decoration contest for the 15th year in a row? Who is the mysterious Phantom who keeps tampering with everyone's decorations?

The second act brings not entirely convincing answers to those questions. But, more important, it brings some new characters for Williams and Sears to explore. The funniest are a pair of waitresses at the local Tastee Kreme, Inita Goodwin (Sears) and Helen Bedd (Williams).

Four other promising newcomers figure prominently in the second act. Little people Phoebe and Farley Burkhalter (all we can see of Phoebe, over a gate, is her bouffant hairdo) show up at the Tastee Kreme. So does the local community theater director Joe Bob Lipsey (Sears), who's trying to mount "A Christmas Carol" despite warnings by the civic busybody Dixie Deberry (Williams) that she'll cut off the electricity at the theater on Christmas Eve if the bills haven't been paid.

The material is as thin as a whippet. But it's undeniably fascinating to watch Williams and Sears balance their many appearances and still find the time to lift at least a few of these people above the level of lampoon.

Linda Fisher deserves enormous credit for her gallery of costumes. Some of them are exactly what you'd expect to see on these people, but others are surprising in their individual touches, helping to indicate how eccentric some of these people are.

Loren Sherman's set provides a basic West Texas backdrop above a simple kitchen table and a couple of chairs, but the scenes are wittily set apart by a series of Christmas trees that whisk on and off from the side. Each tree's size and decorations sum up the budget and the taste of the people who live at each locale.

* "A Tuna Christmas," Pasadena Playhouse, 39 S. El Molino Ave., Pasadena. Tuesdays-Fridays, 8 p.m.; Saturdays, 5 p.m. and 9 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. Ends Aug. 22. $31.50. (818) 356-PLAY. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes.

Joe Sears: Thurston Wheelis

Elmer Watkins: Bertha Bumiller

Leonard Childers: R.R. Snavely

Pearl Burras: Sheriff Givens

Ike Thompson: Inita Goodwin

Phoebe Burkhalter: Joe Bob Lipsey

Jaston Williams: Arles Struvie

Didi Snavely: Petey Fisk

Jody Bumiller: Charlene Bumiller

Stanley Bumiller: Vera Carp

Dixie Deberry: Farley Burkhalter

Helen Bedd: Garland Poteet

A Charles H. Duggan and Drew Dennett production. By Jaston Williams, Joe Sears, Ed Howard. Directed by Howard. Sets Loren Sherman. Costumes Linda Fisher. Lighting Judy Rasmuson. Sound Ken Huncovsky. Production stage manager Tom Larson.

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