I've seen Radar. Twice.
In Kansas City theaters, I've clapped for Gary Burghoff, Don Knotts and Marion Ross. I've stared down Barry Williams (Greg Brady) and Gary Sandy (WKRP). Back when I was young enough to be excited at such a prospect, I even caught William Katt, star of The Greatest American Hero, who was rumored to have flubbed so many lines at dress rehearsal that the orchestra struck up his TV theme: Believe or not/I'm walking on air.
Jim J. Bullock bests all of these Nick at Night notables.
Seriously. In A Tuna Christmas, the American Heartland Theatre's most likable Christmas show since The Buddy Holly Story, Bullock throws himself into role after role, drag and straight, with zeal, humor and insight. Audience members who go in not knowing he was that squirrelly dude who used to piss off Ted Knight on Too Close for Comfort won't figure it out until much later. Instead, once they get a load of him in this tender burlesque, they might think he's the guy who wrote the show.
I've always liked Greater Tuna, the warm and funny first show in the Tuna trilogy by Jaston Williams, Joe Sears and Ed Howard. I fortified myself at the Heartland bar, worried that this might be an ignoble cash-in. A holiday sequel? A plot involving a "Christmas phantom" and a botched community-theater production of A Christmas Carol?
From line one, though, this works. As a pair of laconic radio newsmen, Bullock and recent Heartland standby John-Michael Zuerlein deliver a deadpan newscast that's dense with jokes and plot hints. There's a matter-of-fact music to their patter, and the fake news is written with a satirical edge and a depth of reference — rare in regional-theater staples like this one.
The show deepens in the next scene, when Bullock emerges — in wig, falsies and a fleecy jingle-bell pantsuit — to deliver a performance of real richness. Bullock's Bertha is a small-town housewife left to decorate the tree by herself as her three kids (all played with quick-change virtuosity by Zuerlein) race in and out. His voice is thin and gentle, and his walk is a prideful lumber. He radiates hurt and loneliness. Later, he and Zuerlein bring much of the same worn-out decency to a variety of roles: little old ladies, overworked Tastee Creme waitresses, an alien abductee, a gun-store proprietress, and a sad-eyed young man who aches to get out of town (if only to San Antonio). Throughout, the two inhabit their Texans with equal parts celebration and frankness. Because the parts are so well-written, the effect is something like a testimonial I once heard at a funeral: "He was a good man but, Lord, he had his ways."
Instead of ridiculing his characters or lying about how great they are, director Paul Hough and company remind us that we all have our ways. Hough is unafraid to let a silence linger, and he paces the silly stuff for maximum impact. Best of all, he and his cast succeed in making Tuna, Texas, into a real — if goofy — place, one where real people feel real things and even the stereotypes surprise you.
Yeah, there's still something about that phantom, but the hokey stuff takes place offstage. A Tuna Christmas focuses on the characters. The laughs are often big, especially in the second act, but the silly stuff is leavened with an almost anthropological honesty about small-town Texas life. This is more The Last Picture Show than The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. By the time Zuerlein and Bullock are dancing shyly to Floyd Cramer's gorgeous "Last Date," you might even be moved. A Tuna Christmas shuns the easy epiphanies of A Christmas Carol and almost every comedy of the season. Instead, it admits that the best we can hope for at this time of year is having people around to share the holidays with.
I never thought I'd say it: I'm spending Christmas with Jim J. Bullock.
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