Red Herring is a parody of the tough film noir mysteries of the forties and fifties. But playwright Michael Hollinger has more on his mind than mere nostalgia: his play is also a romance, a spy thriller, and a sharp satire of the anti-Communist hysteria of the fifties. (That title, you see, has two meanings … or is it three?) There are a lot of targets here, but director David Bradley’s snappy production for Act II Playhouse hits them all.
It’s 1952, and hardboiled homicide detective Maggie Pelletier is investigating a murder on the Boston docks. Her beau, FBI agent Frank Keller, is in pursuit of a spy ring. Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away, clean-cut physicist James proposes marriage to his sweetheart Lynn – who just happens to be the (fictional) daughter of that infamous Commie hunter, Senator Joe McCarthy. But James also shares a secret with Lynn: he’s a Soviet spy.
“That’s so glamorous!” says Lynn. “Wait till I tell Daddy!”
Eventually, all three storylines intersect in a plot that mixes marriage, microfilm, mistaken identity, a bridal salon, a nuclear test, and a box of Velveeta.
Red Herring is enjoyably silly, and Hollinger’s short scenes, crisp dialogue, and sharp wisecracks keep things interesting. Still, Hollinger’s excesses get the better of him at times, especially in Act Two, when he goes overboard trying to find more unlikely locales – one scene takes place in a confessional booth, another at an atomic bomb testing site. And there’s a big plot hole involving a mistaken identity that Maggie should have been smart enough to avoid. But Bradley’s direction suits this farcical material well, barreling along with an admirable lack of restraint.
Rachel Camp makes a determined Maggie, her hard-boiled toughness never getting in the way of her charm. Charlie DelMarcelle is suitably gruff as Frank, playing off Camp well. While these two mostly play it straight, the supporting characters around them get more and more outlandish as the play goes on. Eileen Cella is Lynn, whose prim looks belie her randy attitude; Patrick Romano is her overwhelmed beau; Hayden Saunier is both Lynn’s puritanical mother and a scheming landlady; and David Ingram is a Russian fisherman whose funniest moments come when he keeps his mouth shut. All except Camp play multiple roles, with Saunier’s role as Lynn’s puritanical mother and Cella’s deadpan turn as a clerk coming off best.
Colin McIlvane’s handsome dockside set design allows for quick transitions, with Lilly Fossner’s lighting providing the right nourish mood. Christopher Colucci’s soundscape adds to the atmosphere with some well-selected snippets of vintage jazz, while Katherine Fritz’s costumes add a touch of authenticity. Melanie Julien is the Dialect Coach, and the accents – Boston, Southern, Russian – add to the comedy without overdoing it.
Red Herring isn’t always smooth going; its final scene, which reaches for a too-tidy happy ending, feels forced. But for the most part, Red Herring is a satisfying romp that takes on some serious issues without ever taking itself too seriously.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with no intermission.