by: Keith Dillon
"A good marriage is one which allows for change and growth in the individuals and in the way they express their love."
— Pearl Buck
"Always get married early in the morning. That way if it doesn’t work out, you haven’t wasted a whole day."
— Mickey Rooney
Go with me on this one. It’s the 1950s and you’re a nuclear physicist, a part of the top secret h-bomb project at Los Alamos, New Mexico. You’ve just witnessed the future of human warfare. Actually, you haven’t witnessed a damned thing; against the advice of your superiors, you looked directly at the blast and, as a result, you’ve been blinded for a couple of weeks. The guilt you feel is overwhelming; your hard-earned knowledge has contributed to the future subjugation of the rest of the world to the whims and idiosyncrasies of American politics. You know your course, but it is a hard one. It requires that you hand over state secrets to your nation’s sworn enemies. Your actions, whether heroic or cowardly, will likely cost you the trust of your neighbors and the eternal suspicion of your government, to say nothing of your freedom, your treasure and, quite possibly, your life. As you weigh your options…will you finally marry that little girl you’ve been stringing along for the five years? You cad!
Once you’ve recovered from my withering onslaught of Platonic logic, it may help you to remember that you’re reading a f*cking theatre review; nothing of any consequence. The play is Michael Hollinger’s Red Herring, currently on display at the Laguna Playhouse until March 16th. Red Herring is a play about three ordinary couples: a pair of FBI agents looking for spies, a Soviet national posing as a dead fisherman and his commie sympathizing lady friend, and a bleeding heart nuclear physicist and his favorite girl, Joe McCarthy’s daughter. Just for the record, the only virgin in the bunch is the nuclear physicist. The two FBI agents are on the verge of finding their spy so they can’t get married yet; the boy wants to, but the girl’s ambitious, you know. As for that Soviet fisherman, well, he’s there to pick up American state secrets, but his landlady is so damn cute; she talks like Joan Rivers, it’s delightful. As for that physicist, he’s come to believe that one nation cannot be allowed to have all the nuclear secrets; it’s just wrong. Of course, he’s in love with Uncle Joe’s youngest daughter, a vapid little twit who dresses like Donna Reed and squeals like Gidget. As it turns out, she isn’t a virgin, but that’s okay, she agrees to help him. Everything happens pretty much the same way it always happens in one of those nuclear-age, international intrigue film noir farces. They get married. All three couples. Seems better than blowing up the world, don’t you think?
Starting from the beginning, Michael Hollinger’s play is nothing if it isn’t hilarious. It’s the kind of play that causes me to annoy my seatmates in the audience; I laugh rather loudly, you know. Red Herring reminds me an awful lot of Greg Kotis’ work in that the comedy comes as two opposing logical forces pull against each other so hard, their logic eventually breaks. I suppose there were good reasons for Americans to fear the Soviets in the 1950s, especially so after they developed the bomb. Of course, the Soviets had equally compelling reasons to fear us in the 1950s. No matter how logical the reasons may be, fear always clouds the mind. The point I take from Mr. Hollinger’s play is that life must be lived to its fullest. Sure, there are always dangers; always have been. So what?
Red Herring is served up buttered and simmering in citrus and wine at the Laguna Playhouse, just at it ought to be. Red Herring features a superb cast directed by Laguna Playhouse artistic director Andrew Barnicle; it crackles and sizzles the way a tasty comedy should. Traci L. Crouch plays Lynn McCarthy, Uncle Joe’s youngest daughter. Ms. Crouch’s performance left me in tears. She greets the absurdities of this play with a childlike bewilderment that forced me to bellow so loudly, the tears began to roll. I chuckle as I write. Tom Shelton plays Andrei Borchevsky, that Soviet agent posing as a dead fisherman. This Russian circus bear is screamingly funny, especially so as he tries to convince the FBI agents that he’s a mute. DeeDee Rescher is the Mrs. in this play. Ms. Rescher gives pitch-perfect performances as both Mrs. Kravitz, the lady who loves the dead commie fisherman and Mrs. McCarthy, Uncle Joe’s high strung wife, but Ms. Rescher is at her scene-stealing best as Mrs. Van Norstrand, the proprietor of a Bridal Shop. As a madman blows a hole in one of her best gowns, she calmly states, “I guess that wasn’t your color.” If you can’t laugh at these performances, you are brain dead.
Kristen Potter is delightful as Maggie Pelletier, an ambitious lady agent in Jean Edgar Hoover’s FBI. Brendon Ford is wonderful as Maggie’s boyfriend Frank, also an FBI agent, and Brett Ryback is a lot of fun as James Appel, the only nuclear physicist at Los Alamos who’s still a virgin. Bruce Goodrich’s set is a flexible combination of a film noir waterfront and 50’s posh. Both Paulie Jenkins’ light design is excellent. David Edwards creates a series of delightfully ridiculous TV and radio ads, as well as a delightfully melodramatic production of the McCarthy hearings. When they’re not being stylish, Julie Keen’s costumes can be uproariously funny. My personal favorite is a wedding gown she puts on Ms. Potter. It looks like a lumpy potato sack made of white lace and silk. All four of these superb designers help create hilarity for one of the funniest productions I’ve seen this year.
The conclusion I come to after watching Red Herring is a simple one. Life goes on; well beyond the global political struggles and well beyond the clash of super powers, life simply goes on. So you might as well find some joy in this life. The infamous junior Senator for Wisconsin once claimed that “McCarthyism is Americanism with its sleeves rolled.” Maybe he missed the point. Maybe rolling up your sleeves is an essential waist of time if you have nothing or no one to roll up your sleeves for. Of course, McCarthy died of alcoholism.
Red Herring, February 12th through March 16th
A Southern California premiere production by the Laguna Playhouse.
606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach, Ca 92651.
For tickets and information, call 949-497-2787 or log on to LagunaPlayhouse.com