Play reels in laughs by mixing it up

Theater Review

November 18, 2003|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,SUN THEATER CRITIC

The plot is labyrinthine and the characters are paper-thin, but Michael Hollinger's Red Herring, a detective/spy spoof at Everyman Theatre, is an amusing puffball of a play.

One of the most amusing things about it is that, thematically, this parody of all things noir turns out to be a comedy about marriage. Indeed, when you see the various pairs aligned on stage at the end, you may be reminded of the final scene in a Shakespearean comedy.

On the other hand, if you start trying to dissect the plot or make sense out of some of the characters' behavior, you could come away frustrated. And if you start asking how Hollinger dared to make a joke out of Sen. Joseph McCarthy's 1950s witch hunts, one of the most shameful stains on this country's history, you could come away fuming.

But Red Herring is too lightweight to merit serious rancor. And director John Vreeke's cast of six hard-working actors - and even his hard-working stagehands - have such a good time zipping in and out of 18 roles in the course of 24 fast-moving scenes that this critic's best advice to theatergoers is to sit back and soak up the fun.

The simplest way to explain the convoluted plot, which takes place in 1952, is probably through the characters' relationships. Though it's difficult to fathom what they see in each other, Sen. McCarthy's daughter, Lynn (a bubble-headed Stephanie Burden), is engaged to a physicist named James (a nerdy Peter J. Mendez), who happens to be a Soviet spy.

Frank (Timmy Ray James in a brush cut that complements his brusque demeanor) is an FBI agent trying to rout out a Soviet spy ring and also trying to persuade his policewoman girlfriend, Maggie (a warm but businesslike Linda Rose Payne), to marry him.

Finally, Mrs. Kravitz (indefatigable Rosemary Knower) is a middle-aged landlady carrying on a torrid affair with one of her boarders, Andrei (bearish Dan Manning), a Russian fisherman who's reeling in more than fish for the Soviets.

As the action progresses, the three couples begin to intersect. The murder case Maggie's been attempting to solve for years, the Soviet spy Frank hopes to trap and James' contact in Boston all seem to have something in common. Soon Maggie and Lynn are trying on wedding dresses in the same bridal shop, then Maggie and Andrei are knocking back vodkas on neighboring bar stools, and shortly thereafter, Lynn and Andrei are simultaneously confessing to the same priest.

Though most of the actors' accents waver at one point or another, their physical transformations are still funny. The slickest is Knower, whether she's Mrs. Joseph McCarthy maniacally baking oatmeal cookies, the snooty owner of the bridal shop or the resourceful Mrs. Kravitz.

As orchestrated by director Vreeke, the scene changes are also a hoot. For example, when the scene shifts from a bed occupied by Knower and Manning to the morgue (where Manning portrays a corpse), Manning flips off the bed and onto a gurney seconds before the bed is whisked offstage. Such shifts are facilitated by designer Daniel Ettinger's readily modified unit set.

Hollinger, a Philadelphia-based playwright, peppers his script with hokey one-liners that suggest that even he doesn't take his characters' antics very seriously. That's the best approach for the audience, too. Once you begin mulling it over in your mind - or thinking about the reprehensible impact Joseph McCarthy had on this country - Red Herring can feel awfully fishy.

Red Herring

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays and Nov. 25; 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; matinees at 2:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Through Dec. 14

Where: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St.

Admission: $18-$25

Call: 410-752-2208

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