All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In a play that billows with as much irony and coincidence as Michael Hollinger’s “Red Herring,” the most ironic moment in Harriet Power’s production for Villanova Theatre occurs when the scene that registers the strongest, and has the most heart, is one that clashes entirely with the farcically comic mood and pace Power sets and relaxes the proceedings enough to allow two characters to have a gentle, sincere encounter that makes each of them seem more human and sympathetic than either was before.
In this sequence, set in a dockside bar on Boston Harbor, the characters calmly converse about the difficulty of relationships, especially unions that are genuine and meant to be but are thwarted by obstacles that barely make sense and could be cleared up quickly if only they could be discussed with the clarity and congeniality these two strangers find as they talk by chance over shots of vodka consumed, at one character’s suggestion, by spoon.
The course of true love runs anything but smooth in Hollinger’s play that juggles genres and touches on matters from nuclear energy to Communist menace but is, at its essence, a romantic comedy about three couples in various states of confusion who should be, if conditions were conducive, in individual states of matrimony.
True to its title, “Red Herring” does not make its intentions clear from the outset. Hollinger sets his play in 1952 and peppers it with political intrigue, a murder mystery, people who like Ike, and caution about Communist infiltration in the United States. One of his plot lines features Sen. Joe McCarthy’s daughter. Others introduce G-Men, a Boston police officer, and a handful of spies who are working for the Soviet Union against the interests of the United States.
Hollinger doesn’t make it easy on his director. With all of the possibilities confronting her, all of “Red Herring’s” different threads, all of the elements that could be emphasized over others, Power had to make a choice.
She made the right one, cartoonish comedy that stresses delayed romance and its consequences above all else.
Any other decision would have opened up enough cans of worms to fill a luxury liner’s pantry. If the characters are played too authentically, or taken seriously at face value, four of them have to end up in jail for life, and one of the four would deserve, in 1952 terms, no less than the electric chair. If Power elects to stress the political intrigue and go for a darker, more ominous piece, she turns two of the characters into arrant villains, unfit for the their loved ones or the audience’s regard, and two more into fools, who can be dismissed for their gullible naivete. She runs into the same problem if she makes the murder mystery the focus. Most of the characters can’t mate in the end, and none would rate audience approval.
So comedy it must be, the more loopy and farcical the better.
Farce renders no one dangerous. It lets you excuse character trespasses that are fairly hard to forgive under any other circumstances. Love becomes a plausible motive for bad behavior. Only one character is really a criminal beneath contempt, and Hollinger and Power slough him off as a sky-eyed idealist, Henry Wallace in a sailor suit if you will, so even he escapes opprobrium in the end.
Comedy sets its own trap. It makes “Red Herring” muddy in its first few scenes, the ones in which Hollinger’s characters and plot lines are introduced. Although the action is brisk, the characters come off as two-dimensional, jokes in their own right rather than people worth caring about, and the murder mystery and espionage loom over romance as the main business of the play.
It takes until the middle of the first act for everything to settle and for the audience to see the murder and spying are red herrings Hollinger plants to add interest (that doesn’t really get added) and set up some extra sources of comedy, like the spy who is most earnest about helping the Soviets falling in love with the daughter of Joe McCarthy, the most avid Commie-chaser and the figure responsible to this day of making a legitimate campaign to limit any cooperation with a stubborn, totalitarian Soviet Union a mockery because of his witch hunting , harassment of harmless people, and general overzealousness.
More often than not, Hollinger gets more mileage from good old-fashioned jokes and one-liners than he does from loading his plot. The surefire set-up of the jokes reinforces Power’s decision to keep “Red Herring” farcical and its characters comedians more than solid flesh-and-blood human beings.
“Red Herring” gives you a lot to follow. Red herrings, literal and of the kind meant to throw someone off the scent of the main chance, abound in the play. A wonderfully designed and painted sign by James F, Pyne hangs at the rear of the Villanova set and advertises Ogilvy Kippers, herring that turns red when smoked and is canned in a red sauce for everyday consumption. One of the characters allegedly works as a fisherman for Ogilvy’s. Most of the red herrings are ideas or plot devices Hollinger uses to throw the audience off track. Some of them are clever, others diverting, but the play works best when it concentrates on the three couples and leads them, comically, to a reckoning that will give each of them what they deserve in the long run.
Once Power’s production makes it clear that romance is a bigger prize than solving a murder case or passing on a top secret blueprint, the piece becomes more solid and more satisfying.
To give some overview about how Hollinger starts complication tumbling over complication and misunderstanding over misunderstanding, “Red Herring” begins with a couple who spent the night together preparing for their mornings. The man is an FBI agent on the hunt for the last link in a spy ring that is working for the Soviets. The woman is a Boston detective who gets a call to investigate a corpse who was fished out of the harbor and now lies on the dock where the FBI guy is doing his undercover work. Meanwhile, in D.C., a sailor on leave, proposes to Joe McCarthy’s daughter who worries how to tell her parents the young man is not Catholic more than she shows concern that he asks her to help him in a nefarious act of espionage. I hope Hollinger doesn’t buy the reason the sailor gives for wanting to help the Russians, to insure a balance of power. Indeed, that argument was bandied about in 1952, mostly by former Vice President and 1948 Presidential candidate Henry Wallace, who luckily, was stymied in all of his ambitions by Harry Truman. Back at the dock, there are some surprises in store for a fisherman who has been conducting an extra-marital affair and the woman with whom he’s been having it.
Hollinger also makes it known that most of his characters have had romantic attachments with people other than the ones with whom they are now in love. Some of these would be scandalous in 1952.
Power finds a way to cut through the swirl, and once her and Hollinger’s aims are clear, the production sails neatly ad enjoyably, that quiet sequence I mention at the top being particularly impressive.
In some of his plays, Hollinger uses plot to underscore a political or cultural point of view. That doesn’t happen in “Red Herring,” another reason to keep it fast and comic. Because he, like Power, is on the faculty at Villanova, Hollinger could be involved in this production, and it would be interesting to hear how he and Power collaborated.
By now it’s clear to you that if Hollinger charted all of “Red Herring’s” plot lines, the resulting paper would look like a New York subway map. Multiple events are not the only curves Hollinger throws a director.
Most of the actors in “Red Herring” play at least three parts. This means shifting from Boston to Southern to plain old American to Russian accents and finding different ways to walk or do one’s hair. The Villanova actors seemed to enjoy the challenge and met it quite well.
Raymond Saraceni never changed his look much, but he shows great variation as he goes from being a benign FBI agent, almost a third banana in investigative circles, to being the robust and inventive Andrei and getting laughs as the toadying co-owner of a bridal salon.
Saraceni shares the moving conversation scene with Victoria Rose Bonito, the only cast member who gets to stay in one part all evening. Bonito is a serious cop and a determined lover who, for all of her businesslike gruffness, has a warm, feminine side.
Julie George-Carlson is hilarious as the owner of a dockside inn and makes a good case when she explains to Andrei how much they belong together, current or recent spouses notwithstanding. George-Carlson is also fun playing a matronly and slightly dim Mrs. Joe McCarthy and is the cornerstone of the scene in which she plays the haughty owner of a bridal shop. George-Carlson has great timing with lines and makes the most out of the rimshot jokes she’s given, especially one that ends with the punch line, “We’re from Wisconsin, for Christ’s sake.”
Seth Thomas Schmidt-Hall, who really must lose at least one of those names, was the most effective member of the cast. Schmidt-Hall makes you understand something of what Frank, the FBI agent, is feeling as he worries about his relationship with the cop and as he tries to keep Soviets from getting the microfilm. Schmidt-Hall also aces his turn as a priest trying to take two confessions at once from competitive petitioners played by Saraceni and Sophia Barrett.
Barrett is nicely ditzy as Lynn McCarthy, who loves her father and a man who would betray his county, with equal sincerity.
Brendan Farrell has the difficult job of making you like a despicable nincompoop, and he carries the day by giving a performance that shows how oblivious his character is to any semblance of reality. Farrell literally wears the most hats of any actor in “Red Herring,” and he does a good job as a coroner, a photographer, and the bartender who presides over the lovely conversation Saraceni and Bonito conduct.
“Red Herring” runs though Sunday, Oct. 13 in Vasey Hall at Villanova Theatre, on Villanova’s campus at Lancaster Pike and Ithan Avenue, in Villanova. (Parking is ample on the lot across Lancaster Pike from the theater at Ithan.) Showtimes are 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $25 to $23 and can be ordered by calling 610-519-7474 or going online to www.villanova.edu