Sunday, September 30, 2018

"Red Scare on Sunset"

Red Scare on Sunset
Charles Busch

J. Conrad Frank & Nancy French
With the red-headed, red-lipped looks and antics when she’s happy of Lucille Ball’s Lucy and the snarls and evil eyes of Bette Davis’s Sweet Charlotte when she’s not, Hollywood starlet of 1951 Mary Dale swishes about in petticoat-packed skirts that Donna Reed would have died to own.  As her facial expressions freeze momentarily in a myriad of purposively shocked-looking expressions – eyes bigger than silver dollars and eyelashes almost reaching into the first row of audience – Mary Dale discovers that the Red-Ruskie Commies are infiltrating her beloved Beverley Hills palatial domain.  Even her actor-husband, Frank Taggart, and her best friend and radio comedian, Pat Pilford, are falling victim to the lure of those despicable method-acting classes that are all a part of the Soviet plot to take over Hollywood and the U.S.A.  What is a girl to do but use her looks, her wits, and her size-13 heels to kick those Commie bums out and save the red, white, and blue she so loves! 

Focusing on one of the most despicable periods of American history – present one excepted – Charles Busch parodies in a comedy full of camp, crass, and cheese the McCarthy hearings of the early ‘50s that upended and ruined hundreds of lives and careers in Hollywood, Washington, D.C., and beyond.  New Conservatory Theatre Center opens its season with the long-overdue, San Francisco premiere of Red Scare on Sunset, a razor-sharp spoof of McCarthy’s now-vilified, political witch-hunt that has too many parallels to the actual occurrences we are seeing in this era of Trump. 

J. Conrad Frank
As movie star Mary Dale, J. Conrad Frank reigns drag-queen supreme, making it difficult to focus on anyone else when she is on the stage.  Never has a skirt been so dramatically swooshed in so many flaring manners.  Never have so many overwrought expressions full of everything from flirt to fright filled a face so full of overdone make-up.  And never has there been such a display of ferociously funny femininity exhibited by someone with hands that large! 

In a city and a theatre center that have both seen their fair share of drag queen performances for the ages, J. Conrad Frank may well deserve to be crowned the queen of all queens.  His Mary Dale does not let one moment in the spot light go by that is not worthy of comparison to that famed Silver Screen moment of “I’m ready for my close up, Mr. Demille.”  When she brings the house down at one point portraying Lady Godiva, Mary’s lip-synching toe trots across stage are a combined homage and parody of every drag queen’s featured, spotlight solo.  And in the many elaborately ordained, eye-popping gowns of oranges, pinks, and greens that Mary Dale dons (a different one with matching hats and heels every time she comes on stage, all designed by Mr. David), she is in fact “Queen for a Day.”

Nancy French & J. Conrad Frank
Mary Dale’s best friend, Pat Pilford, is herself a Commie-hating, flag-waving patriot, using her uber-popular radio variety show publicly to fire loyal employees whom she suspects are reds-in-hiding.  While not a drag queen, Nancy French as Pat has all the bold, brassy moves of a drag star and wears wonderfully outlandish outfits and hats worthy of any Castro Street, strutting queen (part of the period-perfect designs by Ruby Vixon).  As she has in so many other celebrated, Bay Area stage roles, Nancy French uses her built-in, wry sense of humor; her blinking eyelids that speak a language all their own; and a sudden way of surprise moves that allow her Pat Pilford to rival continually for equal attention to that of J. Conrad Frank’s Mary Dale. 

Kyle Goldman & J. Conrad Frank
But Pat Pilford is not long for her unabashed Commie bashing.  She becomes one of several who has a past secret that has been discovered by the Hollywood film-lords who themselves are Reds – or so it seems.  Secrets galore are sealed in brown envelopes and locked in file cabinets that begin to spill forward as twists and turns jerk our story and the characters in it into a red-scare frenzy.  Eventually caught up in the fray are also Mary Dale’s hunky hubby Frank (Kyle Goldman) and her loyal house-servant Malcom (Kyle Dayrit), the latter who more than a little enjoys stripping the former when Frank comes home at night too drunk to get in bed on his own. 

Kyle Dayrit, Baily Hopkins, J. Conrad Frank & David Bicha
They -- along with other cast members David Bicha, Baily Hopkins, Robert Molossi, and Joe Wicht – have many opportunities to take the tongue-in-cheek, over-the-top direction of Allen Sawyer and become caricatures of the commie-scare, B-films of the 1950s.  Several of the actors play multiple parts that vary widely in age and sex, but it is the appearance of David Bicha’s “Granny Lou” that erupts into the night’s loudest, longest audience approval.  The old lady appears from somewhere in the beyond to advise her distraught granddaughter, Mary Dale, how to survive and win against the invading Commies ruining her life.  Mr. Bicha’s squeaky but commanding voice, his elderly joints that can barely bend, and his overall demeanor of the granny we all can admire for her spunk and spirit are a winning combination for best featured actor of the evening.

Along with costumes that are a constant parade of eye-popping colors and reams of billowing or tucked material, the other creative effects of this NCTC production are fabulously conceived for this lampoon with a punch.  Kuo-Hao Lo’s Beverley Hills scenes of a starlet’s home and a mongrel’s office are like cutouts of a scene designer’s mock-up, with hilarious touches added by Ting-Na Wang’s designed properties (like a golden, elephant-shaped telephone so dramatically and delicately held by a talking Mary Dale).  Diana Carey has created an accompanying sound track that is so Hollywood ’50s in the tunes selected that the NCTC production needs its own CD for us to take home.  The lighting of Sophia Craven highlights the red-scare threat and offers an appropriately cartoonish feel to some of the more wild and wooly scenes.

For some potential audience members, the degree of riotous ridiculous that both playwright Charles Busch and director Allen Sawyer bring to this New Conservatory Theatre Center production may be a bit too much.  Some scenes do go overboard, and not every actor is able to match in every scene the consistently brilliant performances by J. Conrad Frank and Nancy French.  But overall, this Red Scare on Sunset is a welcome comic-filled relief and remedy to the barrage of troubling and sometimes scary news we are receiving every day and is a reminder -- as Artistic Director Ed Decker writes in his opening program notes --  “Hatred, malice, and bigotry have no place here.”

Rating: 4 E

Red Scare on Sunset continues through October 21, 2018 at the New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue at Market Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office at 415-861-8972.

Photo by Lois Tema

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