I have here in my hand a list of some, but by no means all, the things I find just swell about Washington Stage Guild’s production of contemporary playwright Michael Hollinger’s McCarthy-era farce Red Herring. In no particular order:
- Hollinger’s featherlike touch for banter and sheer delight in wordplay.
- Marni Penning’s hard-nosed performance as Maggie Pelletier, a Boston homicide detective whose investigation of a stiff found in the harbor draws her into a Cold War espionage conspiracy—I mean A Web of Intrigue!
- The way Penning and Brit Herring (no relation), as the FBI agent she’s boning, talk too fast, as they did in films noir and in old radio shows like Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar.
- Jeff Baker’s Russian accent. Never say never, but Russian-accented English is seldom not funny. Actually, it’s never not funny from a character who drinks his vodka with a spoon.
- The almost perfect 12-sided (16-sided?) geometry of the play itself. Not a single line or beat is wasted, but the thing never feels schematic. Herringer deftly balances the demands of his convoluted mystery plot with those of a three-couple romance, while
- still finding room for fun throwaway scenes that would work just fine in a sketch-comedy setting. In one such interlude, Herring (that’s the actor, now) tries to collect his marriage license from a deeply cynical clerk who cites the scandalous divorce rate: 19 percent! In another, Michael Avolio’s H-Bomb scientist and his fiancée—Bligh Voth, playing the dewy-eyed offspring of demagogic Commie-hunter Joe McCarthy—struggle with the voice delay imposed by a ship-to-shore telephone connection.
- The line, “Mimes aren’t mutes: They’re just pretending.”
- Michael Avolio’s Ike-liking coroner. There are laws against stumping within a certain number of feet of a polling place, but it’s OK to do it over a dead body, apparently.
- Yeah, look: Joe McCarthy never substantiated his claim of knowledge of an ever-shifting number of alleged filthy Ivan pinko turncoats in the State Department, so I’m gonna drop this whole list thing now.
Let it suffice for me to say that as rendered by a chameleonic six-person cast, Hollinger’s adept merger of hard-boiled mystery and screwball romantic comedy seldom pauses for breath, or to let you catch yours. Like the adaptation/parody of The 39 Steps that ran ran on Broadway throughout 2008 and 2009, it’s a diverting goof that builds up energy by keeping its tiny company jumping to make its next costume and accent. It isn’t quite as breakneck as The 39 Steps, and a 10-minute tightening would make it even stronger, but Red Herring has already got plenty of moxie. And while it’s customary for comedies to end in multiple marriages, few of them are ever proposed with as much clear-eyed, weary-hearted eloquence as this: “Come on, Frank. The honeymoon’s over. Let’s get married.”