Red Herring

A cold-war play that never heats up.

Set in 1952, when Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai Stevenson were vying for the presidency, Senator Joe McCarthy was busy with his anti-Communist witch hunts, and America was humming songs from South Pacific, Oklahoma! and The King and I, Red Herring is a piece of wit that exists on several levels. It's a spoof on the era, of course, complete with references to Norman Vincent Peale, promoter of the power of positive thinking, and the questionable composition of Velveeta cheese. It's an homage to film noir, featuring a square-jawed FBI agent called Frank and his tough but quietly smoldering sweetheart, Maggie, a detective. There are more layers. Author Michael Hollinger has a thing or two he wants to say about marriage -- that it's a leaky boat and at least one member of the couple has to bail. Or perhaps that it's a pair of handcuffs. He's cynical about it, but you can tell he's also a little hopeful. And if all this isn't enough, Hollinger also brings in references to Moby-Dick that are quite funny but would probably strike me as even funnier if I'd ever finished the novel. (Hey, I did start it after seeing Buntport's hilarious staged version. In case you've forgotten, it's long.)

In addition to Frank and Maggie, there are two other couples: Mrs. Kravitz, a landlady, and the Russian spy Andrei, for whose sake she has just murdered her husband; Lynn McCarthy, daughter of the infamous senator, in love with a Jewish scientist called James Appel, who works at Los Alamos and is trying to smuggle nuclear secrets to the Russians -- via Andrei. Appel's an idealist who believes nuclear parity will avert war.

Will Maggie discover the identity of the drowned man? Will Mrs. Kravitz be able to protect Andrei? Will lovely, dopey Lynn help her traitor fiancé hand off the plans? And, more important, will the three couples find happiness as their stories intertwine in a series of crisply ridiculous scenes?

This is an ingenious and funny play, and Firehouse Theater Company has fielded a fair amount of acting talent to serve it. But overall, this production doesn't work -- though it could with a bit more specificity and finesse. A script like this requires broad, over-the-top acting, but there's a difference between being over the top and flailing and yelling. L. Corwin Christie, who plays Lynn McCarthy, is so naturally funny, energetic and appealing that it's a shame her acting gets progressively more unfocused and frenetic as the evening proceeds. Todd Webster as James Appel, Dell Domnik in a number of rather sweetly fumbling roles, and the always-worth-watching-but-not-at-her-best-here Sue Leiser as Mrs. Kravitz all inhabit the world of this play uneasily and without conviction. Only Trina Magness as Maggie and Ed Cord as Frank infuse their performances with a dry, self-referential wit that works perfectly.

On the night I saw Red Herring, a group of people seated toward the back of the cozy, funky John Hand Theater were responding with huge hilarity to everything that happened on the stage. They were so intrusive -- uttering violent seal barks of laughter, slamming their hands together ecstatically whenever a line particularly tickled them -- that they actually made it hard to concentrate. One of the actors would say something funny, and before it had fully registered, an explosion of delight from behind me would preempt my laughter. Actors and audiences are symbiotic, and actors feed on an audience's enthusiasm. The performers responded to their very loud audience by getting louder and hammier themselves -- to the detriment of the script. If the Red Herringcast and director Chris Leo dispensed with the applause claque and got together for some serious fine-tuning, the results would be much more satisfying.

 
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