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Pinko patchwork on Sunset Blvd.

by Jim Gladstone

Best friends Mary Dale (J. Conrad Frank) and Pat Pilford (Nancy French) are aghast at the political dealings of Hollywood in "Red Scare on Sunset." Photo: Lois Tema
Best friends Mary Dale (J. Conrad Frank) and Pat Pilford (Nancy French) are aghast at the political dealings of Hollywood in "Red Scare on Sunset." Photo: Lois Tema  

In the wake of last week's unintentionally laughable Kavanaugh Confirmation follies, one might attend "Red Scare on Sunset," Charles Busch's high-camp take on the pinko paranoia of mid-20th century Hollywood, thirsty for a comic tonic.

Indeed, the belated San Francisco debut of this 1991 play at the New Conservatory Theatre Center offers an anti-authoritarian shot of fun. It's served, however, in a highball glass, diluted with repetition. While director Allen Sawyer's two-act evening starts off with plenty of fizz, it goes flat well before the end of its running time.

But oh, those fruity garnishes! The costumes, by Mr. David and Ruby Vixen, include a flotilla of juicy couture, from a melon-plaid fascinator to a gossamer cherry-blossom Bo-Peep dress, to a maraschino-trimmed tux, to a tangerine dream of gown (with matching hat). Flynn De Marco's wave-intensive wigs will flip yours. And Kuo-Hao Lo's central set, the pastel Deco living room of movie star Mary Dale (J. Conrad Frank), makes a lovely runway for this fashion show.

Alas, the design elements are much more in sync than the cast. Their acting, both in skill and style, is sufficiently inconsistent that the players distract from each other, creating a choppy overall tone instead of sweeping the audience up in a spell of cheerful ridiculousness. In the leading role of Mary, who, on-screen and off, brings a swanning exaggeration to every melodramatic move and dimwitted declaration, Frank, in a role Busch wrote for himself to perform in drag, deploys the same skill set he brings to his own celebrated drag alter ego, Katya Smirnoff-Skyy. But Kyle Goldman, as Frank Taggart, Mary's studly young husband, feels extremely awkward executing the script's camp demands. More than just struggling with the playwright's ultra-arch aesthetic, he seems unfamiliar with the baseline Golden Age of Hollywood style that Busch aims to further heighten.

Among the eight-player ensemble, the closest tonal matches for Frank include the invaluable David Bicha in a handful of small, piquant roles, male and female. His turn as Mary's late grandmother, speaking from the afterlife, provides five minutes of giddy grace during a final half-hour when the whole show, like Granny, feels long-expired.

Baily Hopkins, too, as Marta Towers, a screen ingénue secretly helping to sow the seeds of Communism, is able to deliver the tightly compressed layers of sincerity, satire and ironic self-awareness that the material demands.

For my money, the best of the bunch is Nancy French, as Mary's best friend Pat Pilford, a comedienne and gossip-hound at the center of anti-Communist sentiment. French elegantly navigates the fine line between pancake-armored camp and a flesh-and-blood character. Yes, "Red Scare on Sunset" is a broad comedy, but French's performance suggests that she fully understands she's in a play, not an overextended skit and, in a large part with lots of stage time, has to offer a scintilla of human relatability and roundedness.

J. Conrad Frank is a great asset, and NCTC has taken smart advantage of his skills in shows including "Die Mommy Die," one of Busch's better, tighter plays. But one very specific performance — even two or three — can't carry an eight-person show.

Working with cast members whose skill levels vary is a frequent necessity when drawing strictly from the local Bay Area talent pool. It's a director's job to even things out on the surface, giving audiences a show that feels like it's made from whole cloth rather than a patchwork of individual performances. At that job, Allen Sawyer has fallen short. So, audience members, be prepared. Grab a drink and strap in; it's going to be a bumpy ride.

"Red Scare on Sunset," through Oct. 21. New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave., SF. Tickets ($25-$55):


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