“Red Scare on Sunset” is a soft satirical take on 1950s Hollywood and the way propaganda of the period helped paint communists as mustache-twirling villains ready to pervert the heart of America. The satire however, lacks any real bite as it seems far more focused on making fun with tropes of the period instead of deconstructing them. As a whole, the Cal State Fullerton production’s cast and slew of one-liners make it an entertaining but uneven comedy.
As the audience takes their seats, the ensemble can be seen interacting with one another. The entire cast feels organic and natural as a sense of world building is created. The audience watches a few of the characters inaudibly interacting, though it is unclear if this introduction is improvised or simply well-rehearsed.
When “Red Scare on Sunset” actually begins, however, natural is not an adjective that can be justly applied. As iterated by director Kyle Cooper in the play’s program: “The Hollywood on stage is pure, unadulterated fantasy. So, if you’re looking for a real, hard-hitting tearjerker, perhaps you should head up the 101 and exit Sunset instead.”
This is where the unevenness between the production’s intent and approach surfaces. About a third of the scenes are played straight as though they came out of a more grounded comedy, while the other two-thirds lay on the absurdist dialogue and one-liners so thick that it is difficult not to smile at the shenanigans. One part is ridiculous and fun, while the other is dull and flat.
The best performances would not be out of place at “The Rocky Horror Show.” The characters can more closely be described are caricatures, which is great for good-natured chuckles but strange when the characters face real drama.
For example, radio personality Pat Pilford (Samantha Preshaw) is blackmailed with photos that could forever jeopardize her career. This subplot is not particularly funny, but the performances surrounding said drama still have to adhere to the ridiculous elements established earlier in the play.
Similarly, a suicide involving a supporting character starts with intensity then ends as though the entire moment were meant to be a joke. These would not be unusual developments in the propaganda films the show draws heavy inspiration from, but it can feel tonally jarring next to its goofier hijinks.
Bertram Barker (Danielle Johnson) stands out with an over-the-top performance that fits the material like a glove. Every scene she’s in is elevated ever so slightly, as though the cast is queued into the fact that they shouldn’t take themselves seriously.
The production is at its best when it holds nothing back. When all of the members of the cast are on stage, the chemistry can be cartoonish in a way that elicits a lot of laughs.
While the tone of “Red Scare on Sunset” can be inconsistent in its execution, that doesn’t stop it from being an entertaining, if unremarkable, diversion. It doesn’t rise to the ranks of last year’s “Italian American Reconciliation” or last semester’s “Tallgrass Gothic,” both of which performed in the Hallberg, but it has its own commie-phobic charms.
“Red Scare on Sunset” will play at CSUF’s Hallberg Theatre until Oct. 29.