By Joel Beers
Wednesday, September 21, 2016 at 4 A.M.
Though Ronald Reagan single-handedly crushed the Soviet Union and Communism in the 1980s, Russia still pings loudly on the national radar, whether it's Trump's man-crush on Putin or histrionic reports from major news organizations alleging Russian complicity in hacking emails (which may or may not be true, but can someone actually go on the record?).
That ongoing interest in Mother Russia, coupled with no small degree of race-baiting in the current U.S. presidential election, makes Charles Busch's campy satire Red Scare On Sunset a good fit for any theater. A goof on the Hollywood Blacklist and red-baiting paranoia of the McCarthy Era, the play is set in 1951 and centers on a Communist plot to infiltrate and destroy the Hollywood film industry by dismantling the star system; banning the use of makeup, fancy costumes and soft lighting; and producing films concerned with nothing but advancing Marxist-by-way-of-Soviet-perversion ideology. While the commies conspire to lure actors into their sinister web through blackmail, there are decent red-blooded Americans who resist, particularly our protagonist, Mary Dale, a good-hearted movie star currently filming a biopic of Lady Godiva.
While more than a little amusing, the ridiculous plot hamstrings the play. Though clever and campy, the story has as much meat as Ann Coulter's face and makes about as much sense as her typing. And the politics are weird. Though the play begins with a red-baiting antagonist, a Hedda Hopper-like actress and radio-show host, making outlandish statements about the importance of censoring ideas that don't fit snugly into the American way of life, the commies are just as bad, with about as much complexity as Boris Badenov and Natasha Fatale. And the one decent character, a vain but innocent movie star, has a rather distressing turn into bad politics at the play's end.
The result is less a satire that eviscerates extremists from both ends of the ideological spectrum than a poorly constituted mock-up of the ridiculous simplicity found in the Hollywood cottage industry of anti-Communist B-movies of the early 1950s, including such classics as I Married a Communist and I Was a Communist for the FBI. Satirizing those films might have been more important to Busch than saying something interesting about collective hysteria and paranoia, but Red Scare On Sunset's comedy breaks instead of bends too often (and includes one of the most dismal dream sequences ever committed to paper), effectively neutering the work.
That's not the fault of the game cast, assembled by director Michael Dale Brown. Though weak spots sully the ensemble, there are also some definite highlights, including Michelle M. Pedersen's sparkplug, commie-hating comedienne Pat Pilford; Jon Sparks' hilarious turn as the heart-of-gold, dumb-as-an-ox movie star Mary Dale (he plays it in drag); Angel Correa's equally funny overacting actor Frank Taggert; and Julia Boese's Soviet-adoring Marta Towers, who actually manages to give the thinly written character some real human dimension.
The best part about Busch's play, which absolutely has its funny moments and bits and is peppered with zingy dialogue, is a kind of ideological battle that probably appeals more to actors than the political one. It's the battle between method acting, a Russian-inspired school in which an actor mines the battlefields of his or her psyche in order to find genuine truth, and that style of acting that Mary describes as "learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture." The play is riddled with allusions to both, and those theater and acting people in the audience will find great amusement in Busch's handling of it; even normal people will laugh when one character advises another who is worried about losing her husband to a Method-spouting acolyte, "Your problem isn't pussy; it's Stanislavsky."
Though flawed, Red Scare, with its four-letter words and at least a half-hearted attempt at political satire, is an adventurous choice for the Costa Mesa Playhouse, a community theater with one of the finest pedigrees in the county. Formed 51 years ago, the company posted up at the Orange County Fairgrounds from 1965 to 1984 before moving to a building on what was then a middle school in Costa Mesa. But it learned earlier this year it's getting the boot (boo!) as the Newport-Mesa Unified School District wants to convert the theater space at Rea Elementary into a technology center for its students (yay?).
It has until next June to find a new location, and while Brown, who is the playhouse's president, said he and his cohorts are actively looking for a new space, it's leaving behind a sweet deal (about $300 per month for a 73-seat theater), and what the theater needs most is something anyone involved in the arts can appreciate: "We need some benefactors," he said before last Sunday's show. You can follow the company's journey on Facebook by visiting SaveCostaMesaPlayhouse.
Red Scare On Sunset at Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa,
Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2 p.m. Through Oct. 2. $18-$20.