From the first moments of Red Herring, Florida Stage's sly new comedy, you know something's up: A billboard advertising kippers reads: "Put a Fish in Your Pocket." Characters talk intensely into phones that have no cords. In this wacky 1950s of playwright Michael Hollinger's imagination, what seems normal and straight-faced is a façade masking true lunacy just below the surface.
Set during the paranoid McCarthy era, the play follows a tangled skein of detective-mystery plot threads. Tough-guy G-man Frank Keller (Stephen G. Anthony) is on the trail of spies slipping atom-bomb info to the Soviets. His girlfriend, Maggie Pelletier (Patricia Dalen), is a police detective on the trail of a killer. Their work is rough, but their romance is rougher: Frank's upset when Maggie balks at marriage, then goes ballistic when he finds out secrets from her past. Meanwhile, a young nuclear physicist (Jonathan F. McClain) proposes to Lynn McCarthy (Kendra Kassebaum), daughter of the redbaiter himself. She accepts -- even though he reveals he has been the one passing nuke secrets to the Russkies and wants her to help him, without telling Dad, of course. Then, in yet another romance, a tough-talking boarding-house landlady (Suzanne Grodner) romances a Russian herring fisherman and Soviet bagman (Gordon McConnell) who must pose as her husband after she dispatches her foul-tempered hubby.
This complicated, seemingly unrelated series of plot lines is about as difficult to describe on paper as it would be to describe an acrobatic act at the circus. But suffice it to say Hollinger's devilishly clever play manages to tie in all of these characters (and a dozen or so more) in a carefully constructed comedy with plenty of wit, hilarity, and intelligence, a trio of theatrical virtues not often found at all these days and almost never together. Staged with finesse by Lou Jacob, Red Herring offers first-rate performances, an inspired production design, and a whirlwind of barroom jokes, vaudevillian schtick, piquant social commentary, and an endless series of fish references.
This clever play uses serious issues in insidious ways. The story may have something to do with Communist subversion, but the writing is all about comedic subversion. Many characters and scenes are memorable. The landlady, Mrs. Kravitz, is grilled by the suspicious G-man only to be interrupted by her Russian lover. She passes off her lover as her husband; to hide his accent, she claims he's a mute, thus prompting the Russian to create a fake sign language to convince the fed. It's an astoundingly silly scene that seems straight out of commedia dell'arte. Then there's the scene in which a priest must deal with two simultaneous confessions, one from the hot-to-trot Lynn, the other from the Russian, who may or may not be her spy contact.
The cast is exceptionally adept, conjuring one hilarious lunatic after another, each one a classic '50s type. Grodner is an exceptional comic, serving up the scheming landlady, Joe McCarthy's perfect-hostess wife, and a tough-gal bridal shop owner. Kassebaum, with a blond flip hairdo and a pony skirt, is terrific as the pert but crafty Lynn, with a smoky sexuality underneath all that bleached vapidity. She's well-matched with McClain's gee-whiz young scientist, a Jimmy Stewart clone who's just so doggone nice, even if he's betraying his country. As the two cops, Anthony and Dalen ground the production, adding passion and heartache to all the manic goings-on.
Jacob wisely stages this crew in broad, flat scenes that deliberately recall television shows from the 1950s. Mention also must be made of Ilona Somogyi's spectacular costume designs. From Maggie's dowdy suits to Mrs. McCarthy's nightmarish polka-dot ensemble, Somogyi's designs are themselves a wickedly funny critique of the 1950s. Richard Crowell's complex set, full of spinning turntables and traveling screens, adds to the vertiginous funhouse feel of the production.
Those seeking to explain a unified thesis underneath all this mayhem are on a fool's errand. Despite the dark, brooding setting and the Red Menace threat, Hollinger treats his story with a light, loving touch. His characters careen out of control more often than not, and so does the story's logic. But in the end, Hollinger's not after Logos; he's after Eros. Love conquers all -- then, now, commies, right-wingers, G-men, dramatic plausibility, everything, everybody -- every time.
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