Dec. 8 2010 12:00 AM

Starlight Dinner Theatre packs plenty of humor into 'Christmas' farce

It’s Christmas time in Tuna, Texas, and its citizens — as played by Jason Carlen and Michael Hays — have returned to display their humiliations and humor onstage at the Starlight Dinner Theatre.

"A Tuna Christmas," the holiday themed sequel to "Greater Tuna" by Ed Howard, Joe Sears and Jaston Williams, follows the lives of almost two dozen eccentric yet familiar townsfolk in the days leading up to Christmas. However,
Christmas does not appear to be a happy time in Tuna, what with a
"Christmas phantom" pulling pranks on the local nativity scene and so
many characters exclaiming "This is the worst Christmas ever!"

showcasing the misfortunes of others, "Christmas" manages to elicit more
laughter than tears.

Whether playing teenage girls managing the local fast-food joint, or two elderly women attempting to take out a bluejay with a slingshot, Hays and Carlen share a natural stage chemistry that is quite often endearing and charming.

Although the shows’ strongest moments come when both men are able to develop a single character each within a scene, much of the production’s humor is built around how many characters each actor can transform into and how quickly they can do it.

The majority of these quick changes occur during the second act in the Tasty- Crème scene. Carlen and Hays start the scene as two ditzy high-school servers — Inita and Helen, respectively — but ultimately reappear as four or five other characters apiece as townspeople come in to order food.

At one point, Carlen walks in as Joe Bob Lipsey, the flamboyant and hypoglycemic local theater director, who impatiently fumes while his food is being prepared by Carlen’s other character. Inita, behind kitchen doors. Carlen and Hays effectively sell the illusion that Carlen is in two places at the same time, despite the physical impossibilities.

Perhaps the best scene is the last one in the play, in which Carlen, as housewife Bertha, sits with Hays, as Baptist radio D.J. Arles Struvie, who recounts how much fun it was to pretend to be a Methodist so that he could drink and dance at parties. Hays and Carlen never let Struvie’s wooing of Bertha feel silly with any "guy in drag" foolishness, allowing the relationship to develop sweetly and sincerely.

Director Rick Dethlefsen thoroughly guides the procession of light-hearted jabs at Southern provincial stereotypes with a gentle push, ensuring that Carlen and Hays’ cheating to the audience never turns into playing to the audience. Sound designer and engineer John Herrbach provides a number of perfectly cued effects that enhance the illusory experience.

It’s a wonderful diversion from typical holiday fare, one with enough bite to create an appetite for seconds.

’A Tuna Christmas’

p.m. Friday, Dec. 10 and Saturday, Dec. 11

Starlight Dinner Theatre

Waverly East Intermediate School, 3131 W. Michigan Ave, Lansing

$15 for
the show; $30 for dinner ($25 for seniors and students)

Dinner begins at
6:30 p.m.; reservations required.

(517) 243-6040 or email starlightdinnertheatre@