Red Herring
Directed by John Vreeke

Shots in the Dark: Dan Manning and Linda Rose Payne
measure out the wit in Red Herring

Nov 19 , 2003

Madcap mischief in 'Herring';
Even crew entertains at Everyman

Byline: Jayne Blanchard

"Red Herring," playwright Michael Hollinger's sendup of the hard-boiled detectives of film noir and pulp fiction, gets a bang-up production at Everyman Theatre under the daft and deft direction of John Vreeke.

The story may be about murder, espionage and the red scare ("Red Herring" is set in 1952 Boston at the height of the McCarthy hearings), but Everyman's production is all about fun.

The daffy mood is set the moment you enter the theater, where vintage radio jingles and commercials burble over the sound system. The mood is reinforced by the set, dominated by an enormous retro billboard hawking Ogilvy Canned Herring.

It may be hard to wrap your mind around a play that pairs love and herring, but in Mr. Hollinger's cockeyed universe, it all makes sense somehow. Forget that the plot has more holes than John Dillinger's dead body and go along for the ride.

Mr. Vreeke has done everything in his power to ensure that the audience is carried along on a buoyant cloud of mischief and screwball comedy. The cast of six plays 18 wackily disparate characters, making for quicksilver costume and accent changes. One actor, Dan Manning, goes from playing a corpse to portraying living, breathing characters.

To make things even more madcap, "Red Herring" contains 24 scenes - 14 in the breakneck first act alone. This means more stagehands than actors. Making a delightful virtue of necessity, Mr. Vreeke and the company have a ball changing sets. The slick, snappy changes bring out the individual personalities of the crew - one stagehand vamps sexily to Etta James' "At Last" while she prepares the set for a steamy boudoir scene.

Mayhem aside, "Red Herring" ultimately is about marriage. As Petey, the FBI man, observes, "You two belong together. You're broke in all the same places." That's the trick of love and "Red Herring" - finding someone as cracked as you are so you can make each other whole.

The characters in this play are cracked - and crackers. The first set of lovers are young and gullible: Lynn (Stephanie Burden), the ultrapeppy, milk-fed Wisconsin daughter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, in love with James (Peter J. Mendez), a physicist who just happens to be smuggling H-bomb secrets to the Russians. Lynn thinks her biggest problem is how to tell her mother (Rosemary Knower) that James is Jewish.

The next pair are bruised and wary. Maggie Pelletier (Linda Rose Payne, whose Boston accent is top-notch) is a tough lady gumshoe, and her boyfriend, Frank (Timmy Ray James), is a G-man trying to crack a Soviet spy case. He wants to marry; she wants more time.

The third set of lovers are older, but not wiser. Mrs. Kravitz (Miss Knower) is a 50-ish landlady at a dockside boarding house who should know better by now, but she is head over heels for Andrei (Dan Manning), a philosophical Russian fisherman weary of intrigue and yearning for the quiet life.

All the couples converge one night on a foggy pier in Boston, brought together by elements as loony as a Mercury dime: a box of Velveeta, a shotgun and, of course, a tin of herring.

Mr. Hollinger furnishes the cast with a stream of swift, snappy patter, and the actors return the favor, rising to helium-giddy heights. Miss Knower is particularly sidesplitting as both the maniacally baking Mrs. McCarthy and the wisecracking Mrs. Kravitz.

Mr. Manning is also a comic treasure, whether he is playing Andrei, an amiable FBI agent, or a stiff. Mr. James also struts his funny stuff playing a priest forced to hear dueling confessions until he finally storms out of the church griping, "I'm not absolving either one of ya's."

These veteran actors are joined by Everyman newcomers Miss Payne - brassy and touchingly flawed as Maggie - and Miss Burden, who tears up the stage in her various incarnations, ranging from a braying clerk in the marriage-license office to cheesehead chatterbox Lynn. When she shrieks, "James, I waaaaant you" in a broad Wisconsin accent, you know you are watching the blossoming of a superb comedian.

"Red Herring" proves, once and for all, that whether you're a flatfoot or a commie, all you really need is love.


WHAT: "Red Herring" by Michael Hollinger

WHERE: Everyman Theatre, 1727 N. Charles St., Baltimore