Regional Reviews: St. Louis
Red Scare on Sunset
Also see Richard's review of Bus Stop
Act one at the Stray Dog Theatre was a little tenuous on opening night, gags and poses predominated, and much of the business seemed choppy at the big unveiling: the fraught, romantic "saturated colors" of Lala Land's golden age of cinema needed another quick dip in the film-developing bath. But never fear, under the direction of Gary F. Bell, the show ultimately gets up on its feet and explodes, like one of those horrendous new "hydrogen bombs," in act two, as marital indiscretion, ruin, murder, and even scandal become Mary Dale's new reality.
Shannon Nara is 100% comedy gold as Mary's wisecracking pal Pat Pilford. She should probably be allowed to do most of the comedy's heavy lifting, taking the burden off everyone else. A lot of excess energy goes in to unnecessary "bits" now. But we get up after act one with a sense that everything's finally clicked into place, as the plot finally thickens, and the gals decide to break into a Method acting school that's suspected of being a Communist Party front group. We come back to terrific video projections that give the show an extra dose of lunacy, along with a Janis Paige-type musical number, "Godiva Was a Lady," that adds a fun dimension to Mr. Bonfiglio's performance as the Buschian diva.
There is a long nightmare sequence, part of Mary's mad, tragic breakdownan admirable signature technique we saw in Mr. Busch's Die, Mommie, Die!. (There are also little mad scenes sprinkled across his Psycho Beach Party) But in Red Scare on Sunset it just seems to count for style points, and it's easy to lose track of where this particular dream ends and the story picks up again.
It's a curious hybrid for Stray Dog Theatre: a mix of their usual, very successful, drag comedy combined with their nearly annual foray into suspense, with the standard lengthy recapitulation from the villain's point-of-view at the end. Red Scare on Sunset has that same sneering monolog, but this time it really works, thanks to Ariel Roukaerts as Marta (spoiler alert, the Commies did it).
Stephen Peirick handles the big operatic moments in the play with Wagnerian strength, but seems more like a victim of the show's slapstick in act one, where it doesn't quite echo the look of a three-hankie masterpiece. The sound effects (while impeccably timed) gradually seem more and more self-conscious, and the comedy seems more insistent. I think most actors automatically search for the proper balance through the first weekend, while monitoring the audience reaction. And I'm pretty sure this will all sort itself out by the second weekend. But if it were possible, I'd cut out about half of those wiggy-waggy sound effects, in favor of some additional Technicolor-style gold, or green, or red (!) "sunset" light cues.
Then again, Amy Hopkins' great costumes help establish the sleek glamor of the early jet-age. And Michael Baird is (as always) outstanding, in a variety of rolesan old-fashioned radio comic and a slew of other fine characters in dresses or pants.
Stephen Henley also shows a great affinity for this kind of comedy, as a lascivious manservant, following his much more serious version of heartache in the same company's recent production of Spring Awakening. There, he focused with deep insight on the strange spectrum of human anguish, which he's turned 180 degrees to comedy here. Mr. Henley shows that, while satire may seem elusive, it is also achievable, even when focused on heartbreak.
Of course nobody can agree on what, exactly, satire might be. But I would suggest that it may only become possible when you can love your subject (glamor, style, cattiness or grace, for example) so much that, every now and then, you can absolutely loathe it too.
Through February 24, 2018, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue, St. Louis MO. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.
Cast (in order of appearance):