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Red scare meets Hollywood glamour in whacky SF camp melodrama

Red scare meets Hollywood glamour in whacky SF camp melodrama

A Charles Busch play is a delicate and glorious thing. Camp melodramas steeped in the aesthetics of old Hollywood, in which the heroine tends to be a drag role (usually originally played by Busch himself), they earn much of their absurd hilarity through their straight-faced earnestness.

J. Conrad Frank knows this better than most. Currently starring as Mary Dale in the San Francisco premiere of Busch’s 1991 Hollywood blacklist comedy “Red Scare on Sunset” at New Conservatory Theatre Center, Frank is a seasoned hand with the playwright’s work, having previously starred in “Die, Mommie, Die!” and “The Divine Sister” at NCTC. Frank is best known, however, for his own drag diva persona, local cabaret sensation Katya Smirnoff-Skyy.

“‘Red Scare’ is a comic romp about the blacklist in Hollywood in the early 1950s,” Frank explains. “It’s a story of a star of mu sical comedy movies who finds her husband has been blackmailed into joining the Communist Party via a method acting class. Both things are sort of the antithesis of who Mary Dale is. She is no method actor and she is certainly no communist.”

As with many Busch comedies, “Red Scare” wears its influences on its sleeve.

“I think in many ways my character, Mary Dale, is sort of a 1950s version of Norma Shearer in ‘The Women,’ a little Loretta Young thrown in,” Frank says. “Pat, my gal pal, is very much a Hedda Hopper character. And the script, though not directly based on any movie or any actress in particular, really does sort of play with the concept of movies like ‘So I Married a Communist.’

“There were several movies in the early ’50s that really dealt with the scare of communists and how they were breaking into Hollywood, which certainly draws parallels in our world today. Pat and Mary are these two right-wing, red-hating ladies trying t o save the world from communism. Any opinion other than theirs is wrong. So it’s an interesting trip that these are your heroes as you go through this little adventure.”

This production reteams Frank with director Allen Sawyer, who also helmed his other Busch plays at NCTC. Also returning is performer Joe Wicht, who was in both of those shows, and David Bicha from “Divine Sister.” Already having a strong affinity for the material going in makes a world of difference, Frank says.

“There’s definitely a language and there’s a style to Busch pieces where it’s a fine line between bawdy slapstick humor and melodrama,” he says. “So if you’ve got a few people who are on the same page, it makes the journey for everybody else a lot easier, because they start saying, ‘Oh yeah, this is what over the top means here.’ Whereas it might mean something very different in a show like ‘Bitch Slap!,’ which we did at Oasis. There’s definitely a presentational style that I love that we play a great deal with in this show and in other melodramas that we’ve done.”

In addition to his own affinity for the material and the glamour and mannerisms of classic Hollywood, Frank has had ample opportunity to discuss what Busch is going for with the author himself.

“Charles and I have met many times,” Frank says. “We’ve become friends over the years, and he is an idol of mine. Whenever we talk about Charles’ work, I always like to think of them not as drag shows, but as melodramas where one actor usually happens to be a gentleman wearing a frock or, as I like to call myself, a male actress. There’s a lot of very genuine moments in this show, and you need those genuine moments to make the hilarity of the rest of it really land and make sense.”

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By Charles Busch, presented by N ew Conservatory Theatre

When: Sept. 21-Oct. 21

Where: New Conservatory Theatre Center, 25 Van Ness Ave. San Francisco

Tickets: $25-$55; 415-861-8972,

Source: Google News Hollywood

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