There's been a crime spree in the tiny town of Tuna, Texas. A criminal known only as the Christmas Phantom has been defacing holiday displays -- loosening the lights on the official town Christmas tree and putting boxer shorts on wise men and ERA buttons on statues of the Virgin Mary.
But the biggest crime would be not going to the Mechanic Theatre this week to see Joe Sears and Jaston Williams in their two-man, tour-de-force holiday comedy, "A Tuna Christmas," co-written with director Ed Howard.
Sears and Williams -- who portray nearly two dozen citizens in the fictitious third-smallest town in Texas -- have built up a cult following in Washington. But this is their first appearance in Baltimore, and it's long overdue.
The pair have been performing "A Tuna Christmas" for nine years (and its predecessor, "Greater Tuna," for 16), but as this appearance proves, they are far from stale. To the contrary, the denizens of Tuna are as irreverent and ornery as ever.
And based on the events of this play, they have a lot to be ornery about. Besides the Christmas Phantom, Tuna's censorship committee, the Smut Snatchers, is threatening to shut down the little-theater production of "A Christmas Carol" -- that is, if the electric company doesn't get there first and cut off the deadbeat theater's power.
Versatility, not to mention their lightning-fast changes of designer Linda Fisher's clever costumes, is what makes the actors such a hoot. But each man -- Sears is, to borrow a euphemism from the script, the "well-fed" one; Williams is the wiry one -- excels at certain characters.
In Sears' case, the standouts are Bertha Bumiller (resplendent in a bright green polyester pants outfit, poinsettia print blouse and a brunet bouffant wig that would do the LBJ women proud) and Pearl Burras, an ample-busted matron whose prim little hat and Barbara Bush pearls disguise the fact that she will do absolutely anything to protect her prized chickens and her beloved nephew, Stanley, Tuna's foremost juvenile delinquent.
Williams, who plays all three of Bertha's children, is in his prime as nasty Didi Snavely, proprietress of Didi's Used Weapons. Chain-smoking, decorating her Christmas tree with hand-grenades and speaking with the lowest voice on stage, Didi boasts: "When you come to Didi's, you'll have a Holly, Jolly Christmas, and the criminal will have a silent night."
At the opposite extreme, Williams is also hilarious as excessively cheerful Helen Bedd, a spike-heeled, teased-hair waitress at the Tastee Kreme, although the scene set at this fast-food emporium, with its steady stream of customers, is the weakest in the script.
Much of the script is surprisingly endearing. That's probably because, especially in the case of the main characters, the actors aren't making fun of these people, they're embracing them. The last two scenes are so touching, you may actually find yourself thinking that, in its own dysfunctional way, Tuna's a right cozy little burg.
In an instance of unfortunate planning, the Mechanic booked "A Tuna Christmas" the same week its subscribers have tickets to "Riverdance" at the Lyric Opera House. This means there are still lots of seats left for "Tuna." With a quirky sensibility that's a little like John Waters gone country, Sears and Williams are naturals for Charm City. So give yourself an early Christmas present and make these good ole boys feel welcome.
Where: Mechanic Theatre, 25 Hopkins Plaza
When: 8 p.m. today through Saturday, 7: 30 p.m. Sunday; matinees at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Pub Date: 12/10/98