By Eric Marchese
Sept. 15, 2016 Updated 12:00 a.m
Striking just the right tone for any Charles Busch play can be a tricky proposition. After all, if you're going to tackle "Psycho Beach Party" or "Vampire Lesbians of Sodom," you need actors capable of not-so-subtle stylization and a director who can get sharp comic timing out of his cast.
"Red Scare at Sunset" offers plenty of juicy opportunities for all of the above. Actual witch hunts like those of Salem in 1692 or figurative ones like the search for Communists in the film industry circa 1951 have been described as having fomented hysteria. Simply overplaying that emotion for over-the-top laughs seems a given for anyone doing "Red Scare." Couple that with the chance to mock everything pretentious about Tinseltown, and Busch's 1991 comedy seems a surefire bet for guaranteed laughs.
Costa Mesa Playhouse's version misses that bet. Some of director Michael Dale Brown's actors obviously get the potential of their roles to generate laughs both through their characters and in the context of the whole. Others appear tantalizingly close to clicking, only to fall short. Still others are either unaware of what's needed or unable to provide it.
That makes this "Red Scare" a mixed bag at best. A forgiving audience will probably be willing to fill in many of the blanks in their own minds, laughing at the mere suggestion of something witty – no substitute for the real thing.
As director and set designer, Brown has a pretty good idea of what Busch intended. Yet Brown the sound designer has held back: A few key moments of the script are accompanied by hilariously melodramatic musical flourishes cueing actors and audience to the absurdity of the moment – but these wonderfully campy bits are far too infrequent.
"Campy," in fact, should have been the watchword for all nine cast members. On the plus side we have Jon Sparks and Angel Correa as Hollywood married couple the Taggarts (with Sparks in the drag lead role Busch wrote for himself); Michelle M. Pedersen as the flag-waving, Commie-hating Red-baiter Pat Pilford, sort of a cross between Ma Kettle, Minnie Pearl and, politically, Anita Bryant; and Julia Boese as Marta Towers, a lovely young starlet whose devotion to Method Acting being closely tied to its many Russian advocates is no mere coincidence.
Sparks is a riotously gawky, gauche and naïve Mary, leaving no question the actor fully gets the role's potential. Correa's Frank is as tortured and self-important as any B-grade never-was leading man, and Pedersen and Boese are consistently funny throughout.
Were the comic timing of this quartet's many scenes tweaked, reviews like this one might inch toward an unqualified rave. And although the play's sharp humor and mock-hokey feel are blunted, the cast has a ball in Laurie Martinez's period-perfect costumes. Audiences who switch off their critical faculties might also find enjoyment in this "Scare."
When: Through Oct. 2. 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
How much: $20 ($18 seniors/students)
Length: 2 hours, 25 minutes
Suitability: Adults and teens (for language and content)