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THEATER / JAN HERMAN : Way Off Broadway's 'Red Scare' Is Way Offbeat

March 18, 1994|JAN HERMAN

The Commie menace marches on--if not in reality, at least in "Red Scare on Sunset." Kitschmeister Charles Busch spares no effort to parody Hollywood cliches in his 1991 spoof of movieland pinkos during the early '50s.

Now on view at the Way Off Broadway Playhouse in Santa Ana, "Red Scare" takes us back before the Reagan revolution to the McCarthy period and shows the Evil Empire spreading its poison propaganda through dread Stanislavski method actors and other nefarious agents.

Central casting never had it so good. Over-the-top stereotypes abound.

There's pert blond starlet Mary Dale (Karen Kawolics), a right-wing die-hard who gives dainty tea parties. She is making a bio-pic of Lady Godiva. ("Can I help it if I'm pretty and have a flair for fashion?")

There's her adulterous husband, the alcoholic matinee idol Frank Taggart (David Walloch). He signs up for method-acting lessons but doesn't read the fine print on his contract. It turns out he has joined The Party.

There's his Slavic paramour Marta Towers (Annette Bravo), a Kremlin spy who peppers her sultry conversation with Yiddish phrases. She takes charge of Taggart's acting lessons. ("You were supposed to start scene study class and kill your wife.")

Rounding out the chief characters are right-wing radio celebrity Pat Pilford (Lisa Antablian) and her former boyfriend Mitchell Drake (David Rousseve, another Kremlin spy.)

Pilford is a born show-biz performer ("When I open the refrigerator and the light goes on, I do 20 minutes"). But her enthusiastic bedroom performances for Drake have left her vulnerable to Commie blackmail.

Over the last few years, Way Off Broadway has become a regular outlet for Busch's campy, off-the-wall comedies. This revival, a Southern California premiere, is the third since 1990 under the direction of WOB executive producer Tony Reverditto. (The other two were "Psycho Beach Party," a beach-blanket-movie parody, and "Times Square Angel," a Yuletide sendup.)

*

In some respects, this shoestring production is the most accomplished of the three. The set design, for example, shows exemplary attention to detail: a leopard-skin chaise lounge, period appointments, flag-painted flooring and the suggestion of a patio, which is framed like a miniature diorama in a living-room window.

Also, the performers seem committed to their roles. One of them--Ramsey Warfield, who plays several small parts--actually shows real talent for characterization and dialect. (It's too bad he doesn't have more stage time.) And Antablian does Pilford with brassy theatrical style.

On the night this reviewer attended, however, the lighting cues were invariably out of sync. The effect was disconcerting, not just for the audience but for the performers.

Reverditto went to the unusual length of calling the next morning to apologize for the foul-up. He explained that the lighting technicians were high-school volunteers whose attention had flagged. And he offered assurances that future performances would be more carefully cued.

Such is life in the amateur trenches. In fact, finesse has never been one of this basement theater's virtues. Way Off Broadway's attraction is quite the opposite.

The theater is adjacent to a railroad track, for example, and one of the endearing features of its playbills is a note to patrons: "Attention: 'A train may occasionally pass by the theater. Do not be alarmed, it's not the big one!' "

The rumble of a locomotive bearing down on you can't help catch your attention, of course, giving Way Off Broadway productions a unique sensation regardless of their content.

Meanwhile, there are compensations: the sound of be-bop jazz piped over the theater's speakers before and between acts or the Bohemian atmosphere of its underground warren of brick-lined rooms with their used-but-homey furnishings.

All in all, Way Off Broadway seems an extension of Greenwich Village more than anything else-for which, bravo.

* "Red Scare on Sunset," Way Off Broadway Playhouse, 1058 E. 1st St., Santa Ana. Fridays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; April 10, 2 p.m. Ends April 10. $13.50. (714) 547-8997 . Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes. Paula Fell Jerry/Sales Girl/Yetta Felson

Ramsey Warfield: Ralph Barnes/Bertram Barker/Granny Lou

Lisa Antablian: Pat Pilford

David Walloch: Frank Taggart/Leofric

Karen Kawolics: Mary Dale

Steve Andreno: Malcolm/Rudy/Thomas

Annette Bravo: Marta Towers/Lady Prudwen

David Rousseve: Mitchell Drake/Arnolph

Kevin Ray Hayden: R.G. Benson/Baldric

Tony Reverditto: Announcer

A Way Off Broadway Playhouse production of a play by Charles Busch. Produced and directed by Tony Reverditto. Set design: Reverditto and David Walloch. Lighting design: Steve Andreno and Michelle Evans. Costume design: the cast. Stage manager: Ivette Torres.

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