This is a play about secrets. Big secrets. O.K., I can say this much – playwright Michael Hollinger (Opus)? He’s the real deal. And director Jessica Lefkow (Honey Brown Eyes)? She’s the real deal, too. And this company, 1st Stage? They are the real deal, for real. For shizzle, baby.
Maybe I can say this: the daughter (Katie Foster) of the great commie-hunting Senator, Joe McCarthy, is actually a Red spy. Lynn McCarthy is going to slip a microfilm full of H-bomb plans hidden in a log of Velveeta (which, as Lynn points out, is not cheese but “some weird petroleum-based product”) to a Russki fisherman, Andrei Borchevsky (Jon Jon Johnson) underneath a billboard for Oglivy kippered herring (alarming motto: “put a fish in your pocket.”) Boston police detective Maggie Pelletier (Anna Brungardt) and her G-Man lover Frank Keller (David Winkler) are determined to stop them, but they have secrets of their own. Keller’s involves Ethel Merman.
Does this sound a little, well, odd? Of course it does – it’s a sendup of all those political-noir thrillers of the early fifties (in which it is set), presented alternately in the style of a 1940s farce and a 1930s screwball comedy. The stages of America are littered with the corpses of such ambitious, overwrought enterprises. This company presents this wonderful play with élan and a graceful ease.
Red Herring has eighteen characters. In this production, six actors animate the lot of them; they and Lefkow establish such separation that it seems that there are eighteen actors on stage. Amy Waldman is particularly outstanding; she plays Mrs.Kravitz, the hard-headed boarding house owner who is also the lover of the Russian fisherman, and also a sort of anti-Kravitz: the oblivious Mrs. Joe McCarthy. She also plays the imperious owner of a bridal shop. Her effeminate lapdog/husband is played by Johnson, who also plays Borchevsky as well as several other characters (including a corpse). The marvelous Lucas Beck plays Lynn’s earnest fiancée, a physicist, as well as a hysterically Republican coroner, whose blood-stained smock is festooned with Eisenhower buttons. And he plays some other roles, too.
Foster plays only one role beyond Lynn, but it is stunning – a morose slacker of a clerk in the municipal marriage license bureau, who reveals that Keller’s application for a license to marry Pelletier has become “a 26B” – a trigger for more secrets, lies and heartaches, for Keller and for us. It is one of my favorite scenes, but you may have your own – the scene in which Lynn and her fiancée try to conduct a long-distance conversation, despite the fact that it takes several seconds for words to travel from mouth to ear, for example, or the scene in which Winkler, as a Catholic priest, tries to hear the simultaneous confessions of Lynn and the Russian fisherman from opposite sides of the confessional. Or maybe you’ll you’re favorite will be the scene where Mrs. Kravitz, masquerading her lover as her husband, desperately pretends that he is mute so that the Keller and Pelletier don’t hear his Russian accent. The ensuing series of bizarre gestures which Borchevsky issues, pretending to communicate with the woman who is pretending to be his wife, constitutes a whole dictionary of nonsense. Or how about the scene in the bridal shop, where Keller beats up the owner’s husband? (“How dare you strike a spineless man?” the owner says.)
Or how about this: the scene in which Pelletier, her heart ruined by her breakup with Keller, meets Borchevsky in a bar, where he’s drinking vodka by the spoonful (to assure moderation, he explains). He is looking at the picture on the Olgivy Herring billboard, which happens to be a reproduction of Winslow Homer’s painting “The Herring Net”. In it, two yellow-slickered fishermen struggle in a choppy sea. To Borchevsky, though, it is a painting about marriage. “Any good boat can take a little leak,” he explains. “But if you ignore this leak. . . and you both say, ‘Let the other one bail,’ you drown.” The scene reminds you that good plays have wit and technical excellence; great plays have all this and wisdom, too. Of course, after this Borchevsky insists he’s from Oklahoma – “the coast” of that landlocked state.
Speaking of technical excellence, you may wonder how the company manages to fit bars, fishing piers, hotel rooms, morgues, and Joe McCarthy’s living room in the less-than-capacious stage area. The answer is with great wit and inventiveness. A box (“do not freeze” it says) opens and becomes a morgue cooler; a plank of wood swings shut and becomes a hotel door; a pair of grips (Kate Karczewski and Conor Dinan) wheel a bed, piled with furniture and with Keller still trying to sleep in it, into the backstage area (Keller looks annoyed). This exuberantly creative problem-solving is the result of a fruitful conspiracy between Lefkow and scenic artists Jerry Kearns and Bob Krause, with excellent collaboration by sound designer Peter Van Valkenburgh.
During his last moments on earth, the great English actor Edward Gwenn observed “death is easy.” Looking around the room, he said, “Comedy is hard.” A comedy as complex as this is next to impossible. Lefkow and her 1st Stage band makes it look easy. My hat is off to them.
by Michael Hollinger
directed by Jessica Lefkow
produced by 1st Stage
reviewed by Tim Treanor
For Details, Directions and Tickets, click here.