Red Herring


Editorial Review

Theater review: Washington Stage Guild's 'Red Herring'

By Nelson Pressley
Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Silly spy games are the focus - or are they? - of Michael Hollinger's comedy, "Red Herring," which sends up McCarthy-era Soviet paranoia while getting gumshoe on its plot. That means it's a hard-boiled crime story, too, plus a romance - a happy mash-up performed with sass (and on the cheap) by the Washington Stage Guild.

Don't go to the cozy Undercroft Theatre expecting razzle-dazzle. Jonathan Rushbrook's 10-cent set is its own joke of minimal plywood props briskly rearranged as Hollinger's terse scenes shift from Boston to Wisconsin to the South Pacific (for nuclear tests). The slinky music on the sound design is a little too tinny to generate a real good noir effect, but then again, ersatz is a better fit for this monkey business.

The actors in Steven Carpenter's production are wise to Hollinger's style, and that's what really makes the show work. Led by Marni Penning's wry turn as a tough lady detective with a soft heart and a Barbara Stanwyck shell, the cast fairly skips through the heavy undergrowth of story. Penning plays Maggie Pelletier, who just might marry handsome G-man Frank Keller (Brit Herring), except as soon as he pops the question, a body floats up in Boston Harbor. Naturally, Maggie's on the job.

Meantime in Wisconsin, Joe McCarthy's daughter Lynn (a perky Bligh Voth) is falling for a young Army guy named James (cheery Michael Avolio), who's idealistically passing secrets to the Soviets. This leads to more subterfuge and mistaken identities as James gets Lynn to make a connection for him in Boston, where a lusty landlady and her Soviet paramour skulk into the picture.

Repartee sometimes seems like a lost art in the theater, so the snappy dialogue and wisecracks rate as real pleasures. Hollinger scrapes bottom a couple of times trying to keep the hijinks percolating, most notably with shtick that has the Soviet guy pantomiming like a bad charades player once the landlady nervously blurts to investigators that he's mute. Mostly, though, the patter hums along. As the law enforcement types, Penning and Herring pitch woo in the same gruff tones they use on the job, and cute couple Voth and Avolio, as Lynn and James, winsomely improvise a rhyme of "Commie" and "mommy" to cover up their clandestine conversations.

Lynn Steinmetz offers frothy turns both as Mrs. McCarthy and as the nefarious Beantown landlady, and Jeff Baker, playing four roles (everyone except Penning doubles up), has an especially nice long scene as the Russian, bantering sluggishly over drinks with an unwitting Maggie the cop. Toss in some appealing early-1950s gray suits and poodle skirts by costume designers Jenny Bernson and Adalia Vera Tonneyck, and you have an attractive, amusing throwback spoof.

Red Herring by Michael Hollinger. Directed by Steven Carpenter. Lighting, Marianne Meadows; sounds, Steven Carpenter. About two hours and 15 minutes.