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Third time is not charming

The first two "Tuna" holiday shows were terrific. This one is a dud.

Tuna, Texas, is the locale of a trilogy of plays from a trilogy of writers: Joe Sears, Jaston Williams, and Ed Howard. Opening the Walnut's Independence Studio season for the third year with a "Tuna" holiday show, this latest entry,

Red, White and Tuna

, following two hilarious hits, is a definite miss.

"This place has gone from mean to meaner," says one resident, and he's right. Of course, these rednecks were always mean as well as bizarre, but they seemed, in their eccentricities and loyalties and feuds and intrigues and romances, somehow also lovable and endearing. Now, they seem just meaner.

Two actors - the enormously subtle and funny John Zak and the unfunny and too-loud Bill Van Horn - play 18 characters. This necessitates quick exits and quicker changes as each emerges in a new wig and new getup as a new character. The problem is that Van Horn, a new addition to the cast, often speaks in his own voice - far too deep for the female characters - and he can't keep hold of his Texas accent. His mouth is often hanging open and he rarely varies his facial expressions; he seems unable to make any of his many characters funny or appealing,

Director Madi Distefano keeps things moving along briskly, but the disappearances/reappearances don't seem astonishing, and the costumes (Julia Poiez) seem overly grotesque rather than exaggerated.

To be fair to the production, the script this time seems flat: The occasion of the Fourth of July and the high school reunion never creates a followable plot, whereas last year's Christmas shenanigans were both charming and moving, not to mention fall- off-your-chair funny.

DiDi Snavely is still answering the phone of her used-weapons shop with the truly great line, "If we can't kill it, it's immortal." And the Smut Snatchers are still at it - but this time we can't understand the lyrics of the cleaned-up hymn, so there's no joke. And Stanley, the former problem child, has grown up to become an unamusing and decent person.

Two misfits from high school have become throwback hippies, renaming themselves Amber Windchime and Star Rivertree (I couldn't tell if Van Horn was supposed to be male or female in this role - the same puzzlement happened with his playing Joe Bob, the Reunion Queen), but although theirs is the show's first scene, nothing much ever comes of their collision with their former classmates.

Instead we get a long, lame routine about spoiled potato salad and food poisoning, and the on-again/off-again wedding between Arles and Bertha seems a non-event. The whole show ends abruptly, without a real conclusion. Like this review.

Red, White and Tuna

Through Jan. 3 at the Walnut Independence Studio on 3, Ninth and Walnut Streets. Tickets: $30. Information: 215-574-3550 or