Boston's Lyric Stage Baits Audience with "Red Herring"
Written by Michael Hollinger, Directed by Courtney A. O'Connor, Scenic Design by Brynna Bloomfield, Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, Lighting Design by John Cuff
Cast in order of appearance:
Maggie Pelletier: Sarah Newhouse
Frank Keller, Priest, Major Hartwell: Barlow Adamson
Lynn McCarthy, Clerk: Allison Clear
James Appel, Woody, Harry, Bartender: Marc Harpin
Mrs. Kravitz, Mrs. McCarthy, Mrs. Van Nostrand: Leslie Dillen
Andrei Borchevsky, Petey, Dr. Kasden, Herbert, Corpse: Richard Snee
Performances: Now through March 19
Box Office: 617-437-7172 or www.lyricstage.com
What do you get when you mix an unidentified corpse with Russian spies, a nuclear physicist, a female Boston copper, a flophouse landlady, the FBI, Joe McCarthy's wife and daughter, and a running gag about Velveeta cheese? You get Michael Hollinger's comic film noir send-up, "Red Herring," currently receiving its Boston premiere at the Lyric Stage on Clarendon Street.
This fast-paced throwback to Dashiell Hammett's hard-boiled detective genre is a clever romantic comedy that hangs three separate love stories onto the framework of a convoluted and, in fact, incidental murder mystery. While the title suggests that sleuthing will be the featured attraction, the real meat in "Red Herring" is in the relationships, not the storyline. The central whodunit plot is merely an excuse for a host of zany characters to cross paths and collide with each other as six of them try to make their way hilariously to the altar.
First we have Maggie, the tough-as-nails female detective in love with Frank, the hapless FBI agent with a tentative hold on the alcohol-free wagon. Next are Lynn, the fresh-faced and slightly dimwitted daughter of commie hunter Joe McCarthy, and her fiancé, James, the fresh-faced and slightly dimwitted nuclear physicist who happens to be selling H-bomb blueprints to the Reds. Finally there are the scheming landlady Mrs. Kravitz and her downtrodden Russian tenant Andrei, she a widow whose husband died under questionable circumstances and he a morose fisherman who pines for his imprisoned wife, Olga. At various points in the story, all come together to create romantic mayhem while, oh, by the way, trying either to solve, or get away with, smuggling, conspiracy, and murder.
While some of the dialog and circumstances in "Red Herring" are quite funny, it is Courtney A. O'Connor's smart direction and a uniformly strong cast that buoy this play beyond stereotypical spoof. The pace of the comic banter never lags, and each actor has managed to find the truthful core to his or her character. As a result, we delight in the foibles of real people instead of being distanced by the antics of cartoon caricatures. We truly care about these people, however wacky their behaviors may be.
What also propels this Lyric Stage production of "Red Herring" is the casting of most of the actors in multiple roles. Barlow Adamson flexes his muscles in three parts: the gumshoe-like FBI agent and hero Frank Keller; an exasperated Irish priest hearing dueling confessions; and a power-mad major relishing the sight of an H-bomb explosion. Allison Clear contrasts her lightheaded Lynn McCarthy Wisconsin accent and all with a surly Boston court clerk whose sarcasm is as pointed as her glasses. Marc Harpin gives us four distinctly different characters: a crime scene photographer, a medical examiner, a bartender, and the smitten spy James Appel whose time-delayed overseas telephone conversation with his fiancee Lynn is a gem of comic writing and timing.
Leslie Dillen and Richard Snee show their tremendous versatility as character actors by taking on eight roles between them. Dillen transforms herself from the perfect tough-talking boarding house matron Mrs. Kravitz into first a delightfully vapid Mrs. McCarthy and then the snooty but droll bridal shop saleswoman Mrs. Van Nostrand. Snee slips back and forth with ease from his philosophical Russian fisherman to a seasoned FBI agent, a German nuclear physicist, a Boston shopkeeper's meek husband, and a couple of corpses. As Andrei, Snee has a particularly engaging scene with Detective Maggie Pelletier, played winningly by Sarah Newhouse. The two share wisdom and vodka while mulling over mistakes and marriage, but as they raise a glass, they also raise suspicions.
The Lyric Stage's production of "Red Herring" is a light-hearted two hours of theater that features a terrific cast delivering snappy dialog. Even if you don't like kippers, you should see this play for the halibut.