In his opening night speech, Ed Decker, artistic director at New Conservatory Theatre Center, noted that “Red Scare on Sunset” has never been produced in San Francisco. Now we know why.
Written by and performed Off-Broadway by Charles Busch in 1991, the play is a breathless, campy, and — if it’s not too incongruous –nostalgic take on Commie-hunting in Hollywood in the 1950s. Like other, better Busch titles, one of the central conceits of “Sunset” is that the leading lady is played by a man, something Busch does with particular skill and grace.
That compliment can also be applied to J. Conrad Frank who, aside from some extreme facial voguing during moments of heightened melodrama, is always the lady in question and never a drag queen. It helps that he’s trimmed some Busch before, having made a wonderful splash in “Die, Mommie, Die!” on the very same stage in 2014, also directed by Allen Sawyer.
Sadly, comic lighting is not striking twice. While Frank, as screen star Mary Dale, is his usual impeccable self — every pose and skirt-twirl of a bespoke Mr. David ensemble is a perfectly struck Loretta Young or Olivia de Havilland moment — the surrounding production is often plodding and uneven.
The scattershot script would benefit from streamlining and Sawyer would do well to sharpen the performances of several supporting cast members who favor declamation over delivery.
Nancy French, a staple of sitcom re-enactments at the Oasis, should be a perfect fit for Red-baiting Pat Pilford, Mary’s best friend and a Nancy Grace progenitor made for Fox News. Described as a showbiz comedy legend, the character, as French plays her, is middling at best — never funny enough to prove the point or unequivocally bad enough to reveal the self-delusion.
Among the supporting cast, Kyle Dayrit fares well as the houseboy with designs on Mary’s husband Frank (Kyle Goldman), and Robert Molossi is fearlessly and perfectly repulsive as a seedy playwright with designs on Pilford. As Commie recruiters, Baily Hopkins is just shrill enough and Joe Wicht just smarmy enough.
Happily, David Bicha is never offstage for long and scores a bullseye with three of the four characters he plays. Like Frank, Bicha plays ladies — particularly sage or silly little old ones — with remarkable dexterity. This makes his quick-changes into the preening English film director of Mary’s musical biography of Lady Godiva — you read that right — even more impressive.
Whatever Bicha is wearing, the best moments of the evening are the times he and Frank share the stage. They set a bar that the rest of the production should strive to match.
Red Scare on Sunset
Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., S.F.,
When: 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes Oct. 21
Tickets: $25 to $55
Contact: (415) 861-8972, www.nctcsf.org