The heroine in Main Street Theater's premiere of Red Scare at Sunset is Mary Dale, glamorous, red-headed movie star and homemaker. Mary is losing her matinee-idol husband, Frank Taggart, to B-movie actress Marta Towers, who has seduced him with the lure of serious theater and method acting.
But that's not all: Marta is also a communist agent. But Mary's knowing friend, comedienne and radio "femme-cee" Pat Pilford, is on to the commie's game.
"Don't you see, Mary," Pat says, "it's not Marta that he loves, it's what she stands for, high art and all that crap. If it was sex he was after, he'd be hottailing it with some carhop with big bazooms, not some eggheaded pinko. Face it, girl, your enemy isn't pussy, it's Stanislavsky!"
With Pat as her sidekick, Mary wins back her husband and defends the star system in this Charles Busch spoof of such Red-baiting films as Red Menace and I Married a Communist. Busch, best known to Houston audiences for a long-running Stages hit, Vampire Lesbians from Sodom, has written a string of silly romps for his off-Broadway company, Theater-in-Limbo, including She-Bitch of Byzantium, Times Square Angel and Pardon My Inquisition and Psycho Beach Party. Busch continues to write and act, and was recently featured as part of New York's 25th anniversary commemoration of the Stonewall riot.
Busch often gives himself the central female role in his comedies, a role that he plays in drag. True to the author's intention, Main Street director Claire Hart-Palumbo has cast a man, Main Street veteran Joel Sandel, as Mary Dale. Sandel carries the role of Mary and the play on his beautiful white shoulders without a trace of a smirk or campiness. He lives up well to Frank Taggart's ironic lament, "You've got to understand, Marta. I was trained in light Broadway comedies. It was drummed into my head over and over: technique and timing equals talent."
Sandel displays both qualities, and therefore much talent, as the morally earnest Mary. When she despairs of losing Frank, she worries she's not an actress, just a glamorous personality. But when she's fighting mad and chewing out a coterie of communist method actors, she tells them what true professionalism is: learning your lines and not bumping into the furniture.
Sandel manages to whip this meringue of cliches into stiffness with sheer sincerity. He can make a Loretta Young turn with a flourish, swirling yards of taffeta without catching it on the scenery. His diction is precise, his gestures and head turns are emphatic and clear. He plays a woman with the clarity and emphasis of a Joan Crawford or a Bette Davis. He has theatrical style. When a Red-sympathizing director suggests that Mary might change her image by making a black-and-white picture without makeup, Sandel's flinch of awareness creates howls of laughter.
Unfortunately, the other cast members never quite make it to Sandel's level. Ann Candler, for one, is miscast as former vaudeville comedienne Pat Pilford. The script calls for an overweight, compulsively funny woman with a big mug who can't resist using it; Candler is young, slender and pretty. Put up against an utterly sincere, completely feminine -- but obviously male -- Mary Dale, she looks lost.
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Celeste Cheramie fares a bit better as the seductive communist who lures Frank with promises of playing Blood Wedding and No Exit. She delivers a delicious comic rave as she tells the right-wing actresses what she thinks of their star system and its bourgeois love of individualism.
David Harlan does a nice turn as Malcolm, Mary's butler and homosexual hairdresser who has been drawn into the communist school of method acting by its promise of sexual freedom, only to discover that the Reds want sexual freedom exclusively for heterosexuals.
Rebecca Greene Udden has made some delightful '50s gowns for Sandel, who changes often, as a star should. But, accessorize, dear, accessorize. (And shouldn't Mary Dale, who has long, beautifully shaped fingernails, be wearing red nail polish? Or is that color too leftish?)
Director Claire Hart-Palumbo has cut a few of the script's raunchier lines, presumably in deference to the milder sensibilities of the local audience. But her real problem is pulling the style of the production together. She can't count on a pool of actors who have traditional stage training in speaking and moving, the kind of training actors used to have in the era that Red Scare spoofs. So occasionally, the production is undercut by moments of sloppiness. Which simply proves the only chestnut about acting that Busch leaves out of this delightful spoof: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard.