Damon Runyon, Frank Loesser, Mel Brooks and Buck Henry with Get Smart, Stanely Kubrick and Dr. Strangelove, the Naked Gun franchise and even Bertolt Brecht knew it — the very scary and serious subjects of true crime, detectives, gangsters and cold war spies can be easily flipped and mined for laughs in satire. In fact, spoofs on the Raymond Chandler or John Le Carre mystery-thriller genre might be considerd a bit too worn, unless it’s approached with some fresh, very funny writing, zingers and crackling dialogue that shoot straight from the hip like a snubbed-nosed .38, and it’s all done very smartly in service of a very different sort of fable on tainted love and relationships. Fortunately for theatre goers at Artists Repertory Theatre’s latest production by Michael Hollinger, Red Herring, it is definitely all of the latter and then some, with a gifted ensemble, under Christopher Liam Moore’s very wry and tight direction, eliciting big laughs from this delightful production.
Though it has a rather purposely convoluted plot associated with this classic genre (which i’ll only make brief mention of here as not to ruin the experience with “spoilers”), Red Herring is not so convoluted that it can’t be followed or enjoyed — and frankly, if you haven’t jumped ahead and figured out the “who” in this “who-done-it” by the intermission, you might be a few fish shy of a full catch, as one the characters here might say.
There’s an early 1950s G-Man (Leif Norby) and his beautiful local woman police detective girlfriend (Val Landrum), both excellent at spewing rapid fire Mickey Spillane-like speak. There’s the quintessential 50s young couple, so morally upright and “gee-whiz” in their demeanor that they are bound to spin totally out of control, one of which may be the somewhat sexually adventurous daughter (Amy Newman) of arch-conservative lead red-baiter “Tailgunner” Joe McCarthy, and the other may be the sweetest, most straight-laced, Clark Kent All-American nuclear scientist Russian spy you’ve ever seen (Joshua Weinstein). There’s also an older couple in an illicit affair (Vana O’Brien and Michael Mendelson), where a husband with a string of aliases may or may not have been offed and where the man may be the Russian fisherman go-between.
Still with us? There’s also a body, of course, of questionable identification; a foggy waterfront and seedy boarding house rooms; dead drops and secret rendezvous of both the amorous and cold-war variety; some microfilm in a box of Velveeta; an H-Bomb test; and plenty of red herring along the way, both in the plot sense and the actual fish sense: “Ogilby Kippers — Put a fish in your pocket.” Apparently, Hollinger can’t resist wordplay even on his own work, nor would we want him to stop.
Ultimately, as much as this play is very dialogue, character and plot-twist driven, and very well-written as such by Hollinger, the real clue here, so to speak, is in the title — Red Herring. All the plotting, conspiracies and subterfuge ultimately don’t matter all that much (though they are a lot of fun to follow); rather, it’s the broken and flawed people and three generations of very twisted sorts of love relationships involved, and what trust can be found therein, that become the main thrust of story. As Landrum’s character Maggie says: “…two ordinary people in an imperfect world who happen to love each other something fierce.” Given his bio and family history quoted in the program notes, this is material Hollinger knows all too well and uses effectively, turning it on its ear to great comic effect.
Norby’s G-Man Frank and Landrum’s Maggie shine out in this ensemble with some genuinely fun film noire banter and the smoldering chemistry of a Bogie and Bacall who know the score and have been handed more than their share of lumps both in life and love. Newman’s Lynn McCarthy is a comic juxtaposition of both obsessive sweetness and constantly re-discovering her erupting sexuality underneath. Weinstein’s nuclear scientist do-gooder turned spy is a wonderful study in how a too straight ethos can spin out of control in the most justified yet crazy directions. Michael Mendelson’s Russian fisherman Borchevsky continues to show his great value as a regular player at Artists Rep. in a role that has him comedically exasperated in not knowing which identity he is in given moment — fake husband or lover, alive or dead, and some hilarious business trying to come up with his own invented hand signals in trying to convince the G-Man he’s a mute. And O’Brien is persona mucho grata, approaching with great gusto the crusty waterfront boarding house matron Mrs. Kravitz, but also as a sweetly mid-west prim and dowdy Mrs. McCarthy and simply uproarious as the ultimate snooty and cutting bridal shop proprietor.
Special mucho mention should go to Scenic Designer Richard L. Hay for a set of monochrome, straight, drawn lines, as if viewing a two-dimensional, pulp graphic novel, but which turns out, with many secret doors and compartments, to be quite unexpectedly and humorously versatile.
Cold-war politics, crime, espionage and love all share in having a certain amount of madness involved with them. Not following up this trail of often hilarious clues and wonderful performances left by this production would be a crime, and might have you end up as the fish out of water. Don’t let this be your fate — see this hilarious play at Artists Rep.
Artists Repertory Theatre presents Red Herring, written by Michael Hollinger and directed by Christopher Liam Moore. Featuring Val Landrum, Leif Norby, Amy Newman, Joshua J. Weinstein, Vana O’Brien and Michael Mendelson. Assistant Director: Thomas Chapman, Fight Choreography by Jonathan Cole, Scenic Design by Richard L. Hay, Costumes by Gregory Pulver, Lighting Design by Kristeen Willis Crosser, Sound Design by Rodolfo Ortega, Props by Rusty Tennant, Stage Manager: Carol Ann Wohlmut. Plays February 12th through March 17th, 2013 at Artists Rep. Alder Stage, 1515 SW Morrison, Portland, Oregon. Runs Wednesday through Sundays, 7:30 pm, with a Sunday Matinee at 2:00 pm. Tickets are $35 – $45, student tickets $20 with valid I.D. Tickets available through the Artists Rep. Web Site, by e-mailing the Box Office, or by calling the Box Office at (503) 241-1278.