Merry McCarthyism

"It's a maaaaaarvelous script," says radiant screen queen Mary Dale of her role as Lady Godiva in a big-budget bio-pic set in the 11th century. "Really illuminates those troubled times. And we have some terrific musical numbers." Dale, sleeker than Lana Turner, sweeter than Doris Day, is playwright Charles Busch's symbol of old Hollywood in his comedy Red Scare on Sunset, currently onstage with the Uptown Players at the Trinity River Arts Center.

That Mary is played by a man, in this case the expert gender-bending actor Coy Covington, is just one of the twists that makes Busch's sharp social satire such fun. Hitting hard at the homophobia and hypocritical whispering campaigns that ruined the lives and careers of many Hollywood pros during Senator Joe McCarthy's Communist witch hunts, the play also takes aim at that other threat to the American movie biz: method acting.

Mary Dale is anything but a method actress. Her on-camera method (as was Spencer Tracy's) is simply "Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture" (a line uttered by Covington with impeccable comic timing). Lip-synching her songs and finding her most flattering angle are far more crucial skills to Mary than artsy acting exercises in sense memory and subtext.

To Mary, life is just a bowl of Technicolor cherries. Until, that is, her alcoholic actor-husband, Frank Taggart (Nye Cooper), a character not unlike shaky Norman Maine in A Star Is Born, gets mixed up with a mess of Brando-esque method types. Lured to a Stanislavski class by a scowling vamp named Marta (Renee Krapff), Frank is blackmailed into signing up for extended study. What he doesn't realize is that the acting school is a front for a Communist Party cell trying to take over Tinseltown with such revolutionary, neorealist ideas as eliminating the star system and--gasp!--photographing aging divas without lens filters.

Leading Hollywood's efforts to bait the reds is Pat Pilford (Lisa Ann Haram), a frowzy "femcee" of a celebrity-studded radio hour. Pat and Mary are best pals, with Pat serving as Mary's touchstone on such topics as politics and homosexuality. During a broadcast diatribe about the "sanctity of the American family," Pat shrieks that "people are sodomizing each other at the drop of a hat!" (a line that elicits roars of laughter from the gay-friendly crowd at this theater). Like a Kaye Ballard-sized Anita Bryant, Pat preaches that "Ideas are dangerous. Squash them!" She also warns clueless Mary about Marta's designs on Frank. "She's had more Russians in her than the Kremlin," Pat snarls.

Like Shanghai Moon, Charles Busch's hilarious take on 1930s opium-and-spies mysteries that recently had a good run at the Pocket Sandwich Theatre, Red Scare on Sunset employs the very clichés of the genre it sends up. Early in the play, Frank and Marta meet for a clandestine tryst on a pier, a scene calling up any of a dozen propaganda-filled film noirs Hollywood churned out in the '50s to pacify the right. (Samuel Fuller's Pickup on South Street, starring Richard Widmark, Jean Peters and Thelma Ritter, was the best of those, and it's just out on DVD.)

In an extended dream sequence in the second act, Mary becomes heroic Lady Godiva, leading a charge down Sunset Boulevard to cleanse the town of pinkos and perverts. When she wakes from her pill-induced haze, Mary marches off to Washington, D.C., where she blithely names every name she can think of in a HUAC-y sequence in front of the Senate committee. Remember, there was a reason that little band of protesters back then was called the "Hollywood Ten." There were far more Mary Dales waving their flags and squawking to the Feds to save their own hides than there were actors and directors willing to stand up to the bullying and blacklists.

Busch, who draws inspiration from old Hollywood for almost all of his plays, manages to temper his biting political statements about jingoistic patriotism and shallow American values in Red Scare by maintaining a farcical tone that isn't just over the top, but over the top of the top of the top. The man-in-drag as the leading lady is just the half of it. There's also a screaming queen houseboy (John de los Santos), a producer (Steve Lovett) in a white suit only Sydney Greenstreet could love and a leering director (Jim Lindsay) in a beret and jodhpurs who turns out to be...well, that's a secret.

Some real film history is mixed in with the hysterics. Dishy references abound, with throwaways mentioning Helen Trauble (opera singer and frequent Fred Allen Show radio guest in the '40s), Don Loper (Hollywood dress designer featured in an I Love Lucy episode), Dore Schary (MGM studio chief in the '50s) and the Westmores (a dynasty of movie makeup artists).

The Uptown cast, directed by Andi Allen, throws itself into all of this with remarkable flair and oodles of energy. Coy Covington out-glams his last wig-and-wiggle performance in last year's Ruthless! by becoming part Donna Reed, part Susan Hayward as Mary Dale. Every glossy pose, every double-take, every curl of Mary's lip is perfection.

As husband Frank, Nye Cooper gets to show off his deft physical comedy skills. Drunkenly shaking off a trench coat, he's a little bit Don Knotts, a little Charlie Chaplin. Best known to Dallas theatergoers as "Crumpet the Elf" in WaterTower Theatre's annual production of the one-man comedy The Santaland Diaries, Cooper matches Covington evenly in the mugging department.

From the rest of the strong ensemble, Renee Krapff is a standout as Marta, using a voice redolent of old Hollywood's insistence on the "Mid-Atlantic" accent. And by not joining the other actors in a buffet of scenery chewing, Brian Gonzales gets big laughs by underplaying his role as a leftie playwright. He and Krapff do some great funny business with lit cigarettes.

Sets for Red Scare are intentionally tacky. But the costumes by Suzie Shankle and Bill Bullard have the '50s elegance of a Douglas Sirk film. That hostess coat. Those leopard gloves. The swooping feathers on Mary's new hat. Simply divine, dahling. Covington's wardrobe is particularly impressive. He even gets a fresh gown for his bows in front of the red velvet curtain. Yes, a red curtain. Maaaaaarvelous.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner