Story: All seems ordinary on the set of Pat Pilford’s radio show in Hollywood in the early 1950s. The one-time movie star is a popular fixture on the airwaves as well as a flag-waving patriot and a bully accustomed to getting her way.
But trouble is brewing in America. It’s bubbling to the surface, in fact, at the home of Pat’s best friend, screen star Mary Dale. Mary’s husband, actor Frank Taggart, has fallen under the sway of sultry siren Marta Towers, whose good looks belie her sinister communist heart.
Marta resorts to some seductive persuasion to bring the impressionable Frank into the red ranks of Tinseltown, which include imperious producer Bertram Barker, director R.G. Benson and Mitchell Drake, a dastardly link to Pat’s hidden past. Mitchell has tapes of certain lewd activities of a much younger Pat in the ‘30s, which he uses to convince Pat to alter her political stance.
With Frank and Pat suddenly silent about their loyalties to the US of A, Mary fears her lucrative way of life is becoming endangered. Can she muster the forces of good to triumph over the ‘pink’ sedition creeping through La-La Land? It’s a scary situation but Mary won’t back down easily.
Highlights: Playwright Charles Busch lampoons the McCarthy era and communist ‘witch hunts’ of the 1950s in this broad, bawdy and generally entertaining comedy. It’s given a vivid and vivacious treatment by artistic director Gary Bell and his hard-charging cast, including an amazing star turn by Will Bonfiglio as fair Mary.
Other Info: Hats off (or on, as the case may be) to costume designer Amy Hopkins for the classy threads worn by the cast, including designs which complement Bonfiglio’s svelte figure in drag. This is no camp performance, though. Bonfiglio simply inhabits the kind-hearted Mary with a wide-eyed innocence and devotion to the Stars and Stripes which need to be seen to be fully appreciated. He even manages to somehow give his voice a convincing female timbre.
There’s amusing work, too, by Shannon Nara as the thick-headed Pilford. Her Carmen Miranda outfit at the show’s start indicates the low-brow comedy favored by the pushy personality. Nara nails Pat’s demeanor with a crass quality which ratchets up the farcical aspects of Busch’s two-act comedy.
Stephen Peirick brings a good-natured, melodramatic turn to Frank, whose own history serves as sufficient fodder to keep him in the clutches of the bad guys and gals. The villains include an amusing portrayal by Ariel Roukaerts as Marta, a three-dimensional version of Rocky and Bullwinkle’s nemesis Natasha Fatale, comrade of Boris Badenov.
Roukaerts slinks across the stage in her best evil manner, sharing in the villainy of Gerry Love’s browbeating Barker and Chris Ceradsky’s devious Drake, with Michael Baird in close pursuit as the nefarious commie director Benson. They’re all in cahoots behind the facade of a ‘method’ acting class taught by the legendary Yetta Felson, who is featured in a brief scene played by Stephen Henley in arch fashion.
Henley goes way over the top, just as Busch prefers it, in his portrayal of Malcolm Levine, the flaming gay servant to Mary and Frank, the latter of whom Malcolm pursues with dogged lust. Baird also contributes as Pilford’s long-suffering announcer, Ralph Barnes, as well as a deceptive sales clerk. Love smoothly handles roles as a studio custodian as well as a director.
Justin Been’s projection design includes a very clever ‘look’ for Pilford’s radio show, sponsored by an oil company, and his excellent sound design has the musical motif of a ‘50s movie score. Tyler Duenow effectively illuminates Rob Lippert’s handsome scenic design, bathing it in an array of red and green luminosity at key moments. The handsome set is heightened further by props judiciously selected by Bell, Been and Robert Kapeller.
Busch’s outrageous humor can drag (pun intended) at times. For the most part, though, Red Scare on Sunset provides a bevy of laughs about a subject that was anything but funny during its infamous heyday.
Play: Red Scare on Sunset
Group: Stray Dog Theatre
Venue: Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Avenue
Dates: February 15, 16, 17, 18, 22, 23, 24
Tickets: $25-$30; contact 865-1995 or StrayDogTheatre.org
Rating: A 4 on a scale of 1-to-5.
Photos courtesy of John Lamb