Charles Busch’s “Red Scare on Sunset” (at the Costa Mesa Playhouse through Oct. 2) tackles what seems like a odd subject for a comedy—the “gray, horrifying period” in Hollywood history known as the blacklist era. The playwright no doubt figured if Mel Brooks could use the Nazi invasion of Europe as the basis for a comedy, Busch could satirize the Communist witch hunt that turned Tinseltown upside down in the 1950s and wreaked havoc among actors, writers, directors and their families.
Michael Dale Brown, who directed and did the set design, keeps things moving and puts Busch’s darkly comic points across, though the goings-on never rise to the level of Brooks’ “The Producers.” The second act is sillier and less successful than the first but you don’t have to know anything about the blacklist to get the humor, a smart move on the playwright’s part. Ultimately, the fascist bastards in our government far outnumbered the Commies in Hollywood, but a lot of lives were destroyed—and the better informed you are, the less amusing you may find the play.
The central character, movie star Mary Dale, was written by Busch for himself to play in drag; Jon Sparks, who’s freakishly tall in high heels, doesn’t go overboard, wisely allowing the outlandish scenario to spin itself around him. Mary’s best friend Pat, a low comedienne, is played much broader by Michelle M. Pedersen, but her performance is exactly right for the part of a comic. Drew Fitzsimmons (Mary’s gay houseboy) and Julia Boese (a Method actress) also stand out in the cast. CostaMesaPlayhouse.com
“Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” by August Wilson (at the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. through Oct. 16) is ostensibly about the titular personality known as “the mother of the blues” and the small group of jazz musicians who recorded “race records” with her in the 1920s. But it’s also about youthful ambition, racial equality, and the exploitation of black artists by white businessmen.
If you only know Phylicia Rashad (best known as Claire on “The Cosby Show”) as an actress, “Ma Rainey” may be something of a revelation. Rashad is an inviting performer, but she’s even more resourceful as a director if this Wilson dramedy and the playwight’s “Joe Turner’s Come and Gone” (a few seasons back at the Taper) are any indication. Wilson is best served by a director who possesses not only razor-sharp timing but a poetic sense of pacing, for those quiet moments when it only seems like nothing is happening onstage—and Rashad comes through like the proverbial Swiss watch.
Glynn Turman (Toledo), Keith David (Slow Drag) and Damon Gupton (Cutler) deliver delicately nuanced and layered portrayals of the veterans in the band; Jason Dirden (Levee) provides a nice contrast as a hotheaded young trumpeter who’s a little too progressive for the more seasoned members of the group. Lillias White (Rainey) is perfection as the earthy, stiletto-tongued pro at the center of the goings-on, who ain’t takin’ nuthin’ from nobody.
“Ma Rainey” is a finely etched and keenly felt portrait of an era when black and white rarely mixed, and the small grey area in between was never without tension. It takes place in a Chicago recording studio, unlike the Detroit neighborhood of the other plays in Wilson’s American Century Cycle, but is as potent and quietly profound any of them. For ticket information: centertheatregroup.org