BWW Review: Murder, Mystery, Romance in Noir Comedy at Portland Stage

BWW Review:  Murder, Mystery, Romance in Noir Comedy at Portland Stage

Portland Stage's current production of Michael Hollinger's 2000 noir comedy set in the Cold War era skillfully weaves a tapestry of three love stories and one murder against the backdrop of McCarthyism, nuclear bombs, 50s pop culture, and zany shenanigans - all of which makes for a delightful, fast-paced evening of nostalgic wit.

Hollinger's send up of a Cold War thriller is really a fable about marriage and the way in which three unlikely couples must sustain their romance through compromise and co-existence. Their domestic conflicts play themselves out against a plot in which intrigue, deception, murder, and mystery prevail. Hollinger offers a roster of colorful characters (played by six actors in multiple roles) who reference many of the archetypal figures of film noir and the 50s pop culture, but he deftly frames each with a light satiric touch and enough moments of genuine feeling to make them at once comic and human. The language is at times urbane, loaded with memorable one-liners, or others sprinkled with puns to groan at, and it is this rapid shift of tone, combined with uncanny cultural allusions - such as the running reference to Rodgers and Hammerstein - and the use of metaphor, most notably in the central conceit of fish/herring -that makes for lively and engaging dialogue.

Michael Rafkin 's direction admirably captures these mood shifts, hovering on the edge of camp but never descending into the grotesque. His brilliant staging of the many scenes which rely on perfectly timed gags - the long distance phone conversation with time delay, for example, or Borchevsky's balletic "sign language" - make for truly hilarity. The physical production is attractive as well. Anita Stewart's murky set over which hangs a large screen with projections of herring ads or Winslow Homer's fishing scene artfully conjures up the dockside underworld of Boston Harbor and then is easily transformed to places as far flung as Wisconsin and the South Pacific. Bryon Winn creates the shadowy ambiance of film noir with occasional bursts of color, while Kathleen Payton Brown costumes the six principals in rapidly changing period clothing that helps them make the transitions among roles. Karin Graybash provides the well-balanced sound design with songs of yesteryear, and Myles C. Hatch helms it all from the Stage Manager's booth.

BWW Review:  Murder, Mystery, Romance in Noir Comedy at Portland StageThe cast is versatile and dynamic as an ensemble. Katie Ailion makes a charmingly ditsy Lynn McCarthy, injecting just enough true sentiment to save the character from being the stereotypical "dumb blonde." Marcy McGuigan plays a trio of older women, among them an acerbic Mrs. McCarthy and a street-wise, bizarrely enamored and ruthless landlady, Mrs. Kravitz, while Robyn Payne is at once vulnerable and tough as Maggie Pelletier. Gary Littman tackles his four wacky character parts with relish, making Andrei Borchevsky both silly and sympathetic. Josh Odsess-Rubin is similarly deft with his quartet of characters, and he manages to make James Appel, the Soviet spy in love with McCarthy's daughter, sweetly absurd. With his usual mastery Dustin Tucker anchors the cast alternating among three key roles. As the G-man Frank Keller who resorts to drink when his romance with Maggie Pelletier falters, Tucker captures perfectly the would-be toughness, the inner vulnerability, and the moments of true emotion that for all their poignancy are tinged with humor. His send-up of an Irish priest in the confessional and the self-satisfied, macho Major Hartwell are studies in virtuosic contrast.

Portland Stage's production of Red Herring offers a sophisticated, savvy, and silly theatrical evening and makes for a delightful winter interlude.

Photos courtesy of Portland Stage, Aaron Flacke, photographer

Red Herring runs from February 27 - March 25, 2018 at Portland Stage, 25 Forest Ave., Portland, ME 207-774-0465 www.portlandstag

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From This Author Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold