Patrons of the dear departed Provo Theatre Company fondly recall the 1997 and 1998 productions of “A Tuna Christmas,” the devilishly funny play that starred Duane Stephens and Lynn Frost as all the residents in a tiny Texas town.
(It was a personal milestone for me, as it’s the only time I’ve written a nothing-but-positive review and STILL gotten an angry letter: Someone couldn’t believe I would speak so highly of a show that contained an obscene hand gesture.)
Well, Stephens and Frost have reunited for another production of the show, this time at the Grand Theatre in Salt Lake City. No director is credited; one assumes the two have performed the show so many times, no further direction is needed.
I would agree with that. Stephens’ and Frost’s characterizations were spot-on before, and they still are. If anything, Stephens’ best character, the long-suffering housewife Bertha Bumiller, is even more real than before, and Frost’s version of Bertha’s skanky daughter Charlene is twice as funny as I remember it.
The show depicts a day in the town of Tuna, Texas — Christmas Eve, specifically. There’s a “Christmas Phantom” going around ruining people’s yard decorations, which has perennial contest-winner Vera Carp worried. At the same time, Bertha fears her delinquent son Stanley may be the phantom, and also has to wonder where her absentee husband Hank is these days. Gun store owner Didi Snavely has to deal with her dim-witted, U.F.O-spotting husband and her senile mother, while Aunt Pearl Burras needs help getting blue jays out of her front yard. (She uses a slingshot.) The town production of “A Christmas Carol” may be shut down if they can’t pay the light bill. And so on.
Writers Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard first created many of these characters for “Greater Tuna,” to which this is a sequel. Stephens and Frost put the crackling script to good use, piling one laugh on top of another as the characters bad-mouth each other and speak in a wonderful dialect full of euphemisms and metaphors.
The show does not lean on the gimmick of all the roles being played by two actors; indeed, it would be just as funny if it had a cast of 22, provided the other 20 were as talented as these guys. The roles are played so honestly that when radio DJ Arles Struvie is dancing with Bertha Bumiller, you forget that Bertha is being played by a man: All you see are two people sharing a nice moment.
Should you go? The jokes, like the characters, are honest and true — and underneath all that sarcasm and wackiness, there’s a hint of true Christmas sentiment.
This was the first show I'd reviewed at the Grand Theatre since "The Pajama Game," more than a year earlier. I missed a show altogether due to scheduling problems; they changed public relations people; and somehow, I fell off the press list. I made contact again in the fall of 2001, and saw "No, No, Nanette" there -- which I elected not to review, because it was so genuinely, hideously terrible. "A Tuna Christmas" was, needless to say, a marked improvement.