Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

Red Scare on Sunset
New Conservatory Theatre Center
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule (updated)

Also see Jeanie's review of Twelfth Night and Patrick's reviews of The Goat, or Who is Sylvia?, You Mean to Do Me Harm and Baby Doll

J. Conrad Frank and Nancy French
Photo by Lois Tema
If a camp show like Red Scare on Sunset were all about the costumes, this production of the Charles Busch parody at New Conservatory Theatre Center would get a run-don't-walk rave from me. The two designers, Ruby Vixen and Mr. David, have created a kaleidoscopic collection of gowns, capes, stoles, hats, vests and suits that will keep your eyes wide open throughout the entire 2.5 hour running time. There are hats to rival anything at a royal wedding, a dress with sleeves that flutter like banners in a Main Street parade and enough ribbon and spangles to keep the Rockettes in glitter for a lifetime.

The primary beneficiary of this sartorial symphony is J. Conrad Frank, an NCTC regular who did terrific work in When Pigs Fly, another jamboree of camp, and is best known for his alter ego, Katya Smirnoff-Skyy. Frank—who plays a Hollywood film star name Mary Dale—gets to strut in some of the most amazing gowns ever seen on a Bay Area stage. But a show—even one with over-the-top drag elements like this—can't survive on fashion alone.

While Frank leads the cast with undeniable flair, and owns the stage every time he enters, he's let down by plodding performances from too many of the supporting characters, and by a script that is at least 20 minutes too long.

Red Scare on Sunset takes place in Hollywood in 1951, during the height of Senator Joe McCarthy's communist-hunting House Un-American Activities Committee hearings, when the film industry was under attack by a right wing obsessed by the possibility that writers and actors might be a little too progressive for the current power structure. Frank's Mary Dale is a capital "M," capital "S" Movie Star ("You can't really call what I do acting."), but her husband Frank Taggart (Kyle Goldman) wants to be an artist, and falls under the spell of Marta Towers (Baily Hopkins), who persuades him to join a group teaching Stanislavski's "method," but that is actually a front for a communist plot to take over the country. Meanwhile, Mary's "comedy legend and best friend" Pat Pilford (Nancy French) is spewing her red-baiting rhetoric on her weekly radio show. Pat Pilford is a combination of Phyllis Schlafly and Anita Bryant in the guise of a vaudeville comic. "When I open the refrigerator and the lights go on—I do 20 minutes!," she says, but her main goal in life seems to be rooting the reds out of the motion picture business.

Unfortunately, the cast—with the notable exception of Frank and one other—as directed by Allen Sawyer fail to do more than declaim their lines with sufficient volume and clarity. There's little dynamic range in their timing: every joke gets delivered at pretty much the same pace, which makes it feel like we're watching a dress run-through instead of a well-tuned production. There are some very funny moments—a scene in which Pilford has been blackmailed by the commies into reading a new script on her radio show had me (and the rest of the audience) roaring with laughter. And despite French's often-flat line readings, the physical business she does is delightful to see and perfect for the character.

As one character says, "technique and timing is talent." But few in this cast seem to have both. One brilliant exception is David Bicha, who plays a saleswoman at Bullock's Wilshire and a character named Granny Lou. Both performances are highlights, but his Granny Lou—a sweet, sassy character—is a brief comic turn that approaches perfection. He hits every line right on the nose, playing his audience like a maestro of comedy.

But, sad to say, two top-notch performances and a stage full of gorgeous costumes (plus a lovely set from Kuo-Hao Lo) can't overcome a bloated script and blasé acting from the rest of the cast.

Red Scare on Sunset, through October 21, 2018, at New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco CA. Performances are Wednesdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $25-$55, and can be purchased at or by calling 415-861-8972.

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