'Red Scare on Sunset': Theater Knoxville Downtown Takes on the Pinkos

You'd think Knoxville's June would be dramatically dull. Professional company Clarence Brown takes a long summer vacation—don't expect much from them until Aug. 30. The traveling series Broadway at the Tennessee is between seasons, too; they're quiet until October. Tennessee Stage Company's Shakespeare on the Square doesn't start until next month.

Still, this weekend, you've got a choice of two local productions, both of them comedies with skewed patriotic themes.

The Tennessee Valley Players' rendition of the Gershwin musical Of Thee I Sing is at the University of Tennessee's venerably round Carousel Theatre. The musical comedy won the Pulitzer Prize in 1931, and is a witty election-year story. It didn't spin off many American Songbook standards, but "Wintergreen for President"'s most-quoted line goes, "He's the man the people choose/Loves the Irish, loves the Jews."

TVP's production is said to be a pretty big-scale thing, with 35 singers and actors, an impressive population of performers for any local production in any season. None of them are mentioned by name in their publicity, nor is the director, nor is their musical accompaniment. Is it worth your time? Maybe. It's playing only two weekends, and we just haven't seen it.

For logistical reasons we caught the other play closing this weekend, Theatre Knoxville Downtown's season closer, Red Scare on Sunset, a 1991 farce by Charles Busch. The author, known for The Allergist's Wife and Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, is also an accomplished cross-dresser known to include a role for himself as a leading lady.

Set in Hollywood in 1951, this one goofs on sexual identity and the Red Scare.

Sagging star Pat Pilford, who has a radio show that's a fictional forerunner to Rush Limbaugh's, is played with over-the-top queenliness by Gary Mullins. With eyeliner and better makeup, he could have looked a good deal more like a woman, but I'm not sure that's the point. He'll remind you of a whole class of Southern women—and men—of a certain age. And it's pretty funny to see a cross-dresser fret about the creeping threat of homosexuality. "Grow up and smell the lavender!" she declares.

Oddly, that's not Busch's original cross-dressing role, which is that of Pilford's protégé, actress Mary Dale—who, in this production, is played aptly enough by an actual woman, Amy Dale Reddick, who finds use for her rubber repertoire of facial expressions, from shock to hauteur to strangulation.

Mary's husband, Frank (Adam Hill), is open to persuasion. As lefty temptress Marta, Rebecca Drone is distracting to Frank and to the audience. But the real issue may be the ideologically ominous Stanislavski Method of acting.

"Face it, girl," the matter-of-fact Pilford says, "Your enemy isn't pussy, it's Stanislavski!"

Later, Mary asserts defiantly: "I've got my own Method: Learn your lines and don't bump into the furniture!"

The rest of the cast comprises a striking set of 1950s characters, like Bill Howard, who, without dancing, reminds me a little of Ray Bolger. An innovative feature I don't remember seeing locally is an amplified voiceover, noir style, to indicate a character's thoughts. I'm not sure it works except as camp, but it's worth the try. Director Jim Richardson, who claimed to be "working hard to become the southernmost interpreter of the camp works of Charles Busch" leaves little grace notes throughout, like the appearance of Pilford with a saleslady about half her size; together, as the lights come up, they look like a Bengal tiger and a penguin.

The production leaves some room for improvement; some actors seem more comfortable onstage than others, and emotions sometimes change as handily as TV channels. The kisses, even the adulterous ones, are perfunctory, auntly. I figured either the actors' real lovers were in the audience that night, or there's a virus going around.

The play twists some assumptions about that paranoid era. This play is unlikely to appeal to the Tea Party, but, as it turns out, some of Pilford's paranoia is justified. In this tale, Communists do have a grip on Hollywood, and especially on the Stanislavski school. They operate like the Mob, controlling enemies through blackmail.

As it turns out, Commies are no friends to liberals, especially sexual liberals. In the '50s, gays had few friends in any of the major doctrines, certainly none in world Communism. A gay man stood a better chance in conservative America than in Stalinist Russia. At one point, the Commies turn a young gay man back toward patriotism and the Catholic church.

To the world at large, left and right, gays inhabited what Mary describes as "that lonely, bizarre netherworld of half-men."

It's a comedy about tragedy. Sometimes the audience didn't know whether to be appalled or amused. An apparent suicide provoked a hush and a couple of uncertain guffaws.

But unlike some modern farces so slight and over so quick they hardly even seem worth the trouble, this play, a good two hours long, is a substantial comedy, with an interesting cast, an unpredictable plot, and a few unsettling ideas.