We have the culprit, officer, in Washington Stage Guild’s production of Michael Hollinger’s faux-noir gumshoe dramady, Red Herring. Really, it’s obvious – I figured it out in the first few minutes. It’s the tiny stage, officer. Arrest it, and if it gives you any trouble, shoot to kill.
It’s really a shame, because Red Herring is a funny show, and WSG has assembled a lot of talent to put it on. But Hollinger has written his play as a series of mini-scenes, ready-made, almost, for television. It is the rapid accumulation of these five-minute bits, each one more preposterous than the last, which gives Red Herring its outrageous and uproarious energy.
But when, as here, a stage crew moves out between each scene and sweeps out the furniture, and actors march out to become dead bodies and whatnot, the story never builds momentum, and the laughter dies a-borning in our throats.
If you’re unfamiliar with the faux-noir gumshoe dramady genre, it’s a story, written recently but set in the thirties, forties, or fifties, which uses the standard tropes of the noir detective story – hard-boiled, hard-drinking detective, down on his luck; sadder-but-wiser love interest, beautiful but hard-bitten; fiendish criminal; indifferent bureaucratic police force – to create something so ridiculous that you, audience member, are compelled to giggle and snort.
In this one, it is 1952. James Appel (Michael Avolio), a commie spy, is in love with Lynn (Bligh Voth), the daughter of notorious red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy (This is a bit of historical fiction; McCarthy did not marry until 1953, and his only daughter was named Tierney). Lynn returns Appel’s love with such vigor that she is willing to help him perform one last mission for his Russki masters. In the meantime, the head pinko has been murdered by his long-suffering wife, Mrs. Kravitz (Lynn Steinmetz), so that she can give her amorous attentions to Andrei Borchevsky (Jeff Baker), a pawn of the Big Red Machine (oh… wait). In the further meantime, hard-bitten, hard-boiled, hard-luck FBI Agent Frank Keller (Brit Herring) is trying to break the spy ring while his lover, the hard-bitten, hard-boiled, hard-luck cop Maggie Pelletier (Marni Penning) is attempting to solve the murder. Overhead, Winslow Homer’s painting “The Herring Net”, turned into an advertisement for Oglivy kippered herring (alarming motto: “put a fish in your pocket”) looms.
The cast squeezes a generous serving of laughs out of these ingredients, although on opening night several of them were still fighting their lines. Penning is particularly good as Maggie, who is the closest thing to a protagonist in this complicated story. Penning hits all the elements of a hard-bitten noir heroine, including the hard-bitten scowl, the vaguely Brooklynese accent, the staccato voice, barking out commands and threats. But she gets the soft parts right too, and when her dilemma unfolds we forget that we are watching a parody and start to invest ourselves in her, as we would invest ourselves in any character whose heart is being broken. Herring, too, seems prepared almost by DNA for his part: broad-shouldered, square-jawed (these are Hollinger’s explicit requirements), he, like Penning, seems to have stepped right off the set of a noir flick himself. His name, I assume, is simply a bonus.
There are plenty of other good performances. Voth is absolutely faithful to the Betty Booplike contours of her character, although unlike Penning she never tries to take Lynn out of the faux and into the noir. Steinmetz had line problems on opening night, but her three characters are all funny, in completely different ways. And Baker, who plays Frank Keller’s straight-arrow assistant as well as Borchevsky and a couple other folks, manages unfussily to achieve considerable separation between his characters.
Alas and goddam, the frequent scene changes never allow the comic antics to build up a head of steam. This isn’t the crew’s fault; they move about as efficiently as you could expect. Jonathan Rushbrook’s minimalist set doesn’t show much imagination, but the available space limited what he could do. No, I place the blame for Red Herring’s failure to be all that it could be squarely where it belongs – on the City of Washington, which failed to give WSG the help it promised to give several years ago. And I trace the roots of this failure to the large number of commies, even now, in City Hall. In fact, I have, in my hand, a list….
By Michael Hollinger
Directed by Steven Carpenter
Produced by Washington Stage Guild
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
2 hrs, 10 minutes, with 1 intermission