“A Tuna Christmas”
8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Check schedule for 2 p.m. matinees. Through Jan. 3. $20-$35. Theatre in the Square, Alley Stage, 11 Whitlock Ave., Marietta. 770-422-8369, theatreinthesquare.com
By Wendell Brock
Life sure is lopsided in Tuna, the “third smallest town” in the second largest state in the union. Beginning with 1981’s “Greater Tuna,” the series of plays about a fictional community of Texas eccentrics has entertained audiences with its assortment of outsize characters, all played by a pair of quick-changing, cross-dressing actors.
Created by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard, Tuna is an oddly exaggerated, broadly satirical town of animal lovers and taxidermists, KKK sympathizers and “smut snatchers,” big-haired waitresses and UFologists. Imagine John Waters re-writing “Mama’s Family,” and you get the idea of the kind of low-brow, corn-pone tomfoolery that fuels the crowd-pleasing Tuna franchise.
In “A Tuna Christmas,” which runs at Marietta’s Theatre in the Square through Jan. 3, a so-called “Christmas phantom” is vandalizing the community’s annual yard-decorating contest, threatening to ruin the 14-year winning streak of wealthy town snob Vera Carp. “Silent Night” is in danger of being banned, thanks to its racy lyrics about “round young virgins,” and the electric company is poised to unplug the power on the Tuna Little Theater production of “A Christmas Carol.”
It’s a thinly plotted, somewhat dark and not very Christmas-y feeling gag-fest in which all the usual suspects — beginning with radio disc jockeys Arlis and Thurston — are played by actors Steve L. Hudson and William S. Murphey and directed by Howard.
Both performers work really hard to deliver the laughs, and Murphey, in particular, is delightful in the “big girl” roles of Bertha Bumiller, Aunt Pearl, Tastee Kreme waitress Inita Goodwin and, come to think of it, frustrated theater director Joe Bob Lipsey.
Part of the Tuna schtick has always been the sheer ridiculousness of putting large men in drag. But here, Hudson uses his petite physique and nasal whine to sketch characters who are borderline believable women, which makes for a nice foil to Murphey’s buxom females. From under his big wigs and frocks, Murphey exudes an awareness of the absurdity of it all, and you almost wish he’d shoot a wink or two at the audience, just to let you know he’s in on the jokes.
The show packs plenty of dependable one-liners and, in characters like the disaffected Charlene Bumiller, comments on the tedium of the holidays with stinging apathy. Slow to bake and overly long, the story picks up some steam in the second act and ends with a warm glow. Just don’t tire yourself grasping for cosmic meaning or profound revelations in this cheesy, warmed over “Tuna” casserole.