Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
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. Frankwho plays a Hollywood film star name Mary Dalegets to strut in some of the most amazing gowns ever seen on a Bay Area stage. But a showeven one with over-the-top drag elements like thiscan'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 onI 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 castwith the notable exception of Frank and one otheras 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 momentsa 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 Loua sweet, sassy characteris 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 NCTCSF.org or by calling 415-861-8972.