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Vol. LXIV, No. 40
Wednesday, October 6, 2010
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Love, Marriage, Murder, Espionage, Comedy Merge in “Red Herring,” at Theatre Intime

Donald Gilpin

The maritime motifs proliferate in Michael Hollinger’s Red Herring, a murder mystery, film noir parody and romantic comedy all in one, currently playing at Theatre Intime.

The title, of course, alludes to the misleading clues that send the multifarious murder mystery and nuclear espionage plots off on various tangents during the course of the evening. (Red herrings with their powerful odor have actually been used to throw hunting dogs off the trail.) And there are literal fish in this play (including herrings), a main character who is a fisherman, a seaport city (Boston) setting, one scene actually on shipboard, and several key encounters on a fish pier.

A large billboard, an image of Winslow Homer’s “The Herring Net,” depicting two fishermen in a small boat and promoting “Ogilby Kippers — Put a Fish in Your Pocket,” fills the back wall of the stage. Boats also play an important symbolic role here — first as the basis of a character’s much discussed erotic dream, then as a captivating metaphor for marriage, a relationship “like a little dory with a little leak” in which both partners need to put in the necessary time bailing in order to keep the boat afloat.

Theatre Intime’s production of Michael Hollinger’s “Red Herring” runs for one more weekend, with performances Thursday through Saturday, October 7-9, at 8 p.m. at the Hamilton Murray Theater. Call (609) 258-1742 or visit for information.

Yes, the production is a rich kettle of fish, but this poor boat is overloaded with plot — three romantic couples working out their difficulties, plus the international espionage intrigue and a murder mystery too; eighteen characters, played by only six able and versatile but over-taxed performers; twenty-four scenes, with necessary changes in between; and just too many tangles and confusions, red herrings and mistaken identities.

The boat is in danger of sinking under the load. It’s an intriguing, funny, cleverly written and constructed play, but the plots are too convoluted and they go on for too long. Some diction problems on opening night added to the confusion. Following what’s happening, much less caring deeply about the three romantic couples and their predicaments, is difficult.

The Intime undergraduate company, under the direction of Princeton University junior Cara Liuzzi, is engaging and well rehearsed. The production values — set design by Aryeh Stein-Azen and Ben Schaffer with lighting by Amanda Bestor Siegal, sound by Robin Yang and Mr. Schaffer and costumes by Caroline Hodge — are consistently strong. But the challenges of Red Herring, for performers and audience alike, are the equivalent of a typhoon.

Red Herring, which debuted at the Arden Theatre in Philadelphia in 2000, is set in 1952, with Eisenhower running for President, America developing the H-bomb and the Russians desperately seeking information. Against this backdrop — and inextricably involved in it — are three couples, in their early twenties, mid thirties and late forties, respectively: James Appel (Brad Wilson), a nuclear scientist and Soviet spy, and his fiancée Lynn McCarthy (Carolyn Vasko), whose father Joe McCarthy is in the process of conducting his anti-Communist Senate hearings; Maggie Pelletier (Taylor Mallory), a Boston detective, and her lover Frank Keller (Patrick Morton), an FBI man; and Andrei Borchevsky (Sebastian Franco), a Russian immigrant fisherman and spy who is having an affair with his landlady, Mrs. Kravitz (Jenna Devine), who is willing to kill her husband and pass along his identity to Andrei.

Maggie, who mysteriously puts off Frank’s marriage proposal, is working on the case of a murdered Russian fisherman. Frank is investigating spies (one of whom is Borchevsky, aided by Mrs. Kravitz) who are divulging nuclear secrets to the Soviets. Meanwhile James has persuaded Lynn to deliver secret information, hidden in a package of Velveeta Cheese to a Soviet agent.

As the lives of the six — with each actor playing additional supporting roles — interweave, the plot, in its exaggerated, mock-film noir-Raymond Chandler — Humphrey Bogart style, becomes increasing complicated before it finally culminates with everybody on the Boston fish pier for a mass wedding ceremony. The play turns out to be a fable about love and marriage.

Along the way, the ensemble does some excellent work in creating this array of eccentric characters and bringing to life these disparate scenes. Mr. Franco’s Russian fisherman-spy is especially vibrant and amusing. Whether he’s at the bar giving marriage advice in his broken accent, confessing his sins to the priest or posing as the mute husband of Mrs. Kravitz, his energetic passions focus the scene and engage the audience’s attention.

A potpourri of music, mostly popular tunes from the early 1950s, helps to move the action along during the frequent scene changes, and the evening does provides ample doses of wit, humor, and intrigue. It’s a difficult maiden voyage for Theatre Intime, but this group is rich in talent, intelligence and potential for the 2010-11 season.

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