Red Scare on Sunset
Written by Charles Busch
Directed by Allen Sawyer
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Ripped straight from today’s headlines, NCTC Artistic Director and Director Allen Sawyer stage Charles Busch’s prescient Red Scare on Sunset, a campy satire on 1950’s red-baiting McCarthyism. The timing couldn’t be more perfect for this humorous, yet ultimately disturbing comic noir; a chance to let loose and laugh at the extremes of both far right and far left.
Charles Busch (The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom) sets his tale on the radio airwaves of uber patriot Pat Pilford (Nancy French) and the lavish art-deco living room of politically naïve movie star Mary Dale (J. Conrad Frank). Pilford fires her costar on the air, destroying his career with the accusation of being ‘pink’. No one is off limits for her narrow view of acceptability and her duty of exposing sodomites and commies. To her, “ideas are dangerous, squash them!”. Dale is her daft, politically blind counterpart, oblivious to the pinkos and homosexuals in her midst.
The plot, involving a communist cell in the guise of a method acting school, false identities and ruined lives, in wonderfully staged by Sawyer who pulls the humor out of this gifted cast. Add on Kuo-Hao Lo’s beautiful set design, Mr. David and Ruby Vixen’s stunning period piece costumes and Sophia Craven’s dramatic lighting and you’ve got a sparkling production full of wonderful performances.
Nancy French is a wonder as Pilford, a mugging low comedienne with a nasty agenda. French, who’s comic legacy goes back to Imogene Coca and Lucille Ball, studied vintage clips of Martha Raye to develop her character and it works like a charm. You laugh at her, but wouldn’t want to cross her narrow all-American true blue virtues.
Local comic geniuses David Bicha, Joe Witcht and Robert Molossi play a variety of characters from Hollywood moguls, directors and screenwriters to Mary Dale’s dead grandmother. Baily Hopkins plays the commie femme fatale Marta Towers and Kyle Goldman is a surprise as the Mary Dales weak-willed, manipulated husband Frank. Kyle Dayrit get to play the tragic gay houseboy who’d destroyed by his accusers.
And then there’s J. Conrad Frank as Mary Dale, initially blind the to the shenanigans surrounding her, her husband’s infidelity, the Communist menace right in front of her. She’s a star, not an actress, mired in her glamour, makeup and image. Only when she’s dragged into the drama does she become a heroine of the play. Conrad is perfection in this type of tailor-made role; it’s a special gift when one can’t imagine another actor assuming the role. Her transitional arc through this production displays her carefully crafted skills of drag performance, which combined with Busch’s clever material, elevate drag to high art similar to the legends like Charles Pierce, Lypsinka and Busch himself.
Red Scare on Sunset, a satire on the anti-communist movies of the 50’s, shows a more ambiguous world than the black and white era of WWII, where good and evil was clearly delineated. Its difficult to root for Pat Pilford and her moral crusade against free thought and sexual freedom, but equally little chance of supporting the cartoonish commies who would limit freedom in the name of a supposed greater society. The finale, when Mary Dale names names before the House Un-American Activities Committee, is a chilling reminder of the dangers of extremism. More than just a campy piece of fluff, Red Scare is smart political thought piece couched in laugh-filled comedy. It’s a wonderfully successful opening to NCTC’s 2018/19 season.
Red Scare on Sunset continues through October 21st, 2018 at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at http://www.nctcsf.org/ or by calling (415) 861-8972.
Photo credits by Lois Tema