Red Herring is a chameleon of a play. It is set in 1952 but shifts genres almost from scene to scene. It begins with a satire of hard-boiled detective and film-noir boilerplates, with a lot of sassy lines and attitude. There’s a dead body, and a pair of badge-carrying investigators, who happen to be lovers, are trying to figure out the whodunit.
Soon, the play morphs into an espionage pastiche involving stolen microfilms, nuclear-weapons research and a pivotal character who happens to be the daughter of a famous politician of the period. (We won’t spoil the fun by disclosing the details; just keep the title in mind.)
Wait, there’s more. We go to a morgue, where an ebullient coroner, decked out in “I Like Ike” campaign buttons (actor Anthony D’Juan, in a marvelous cameo), stands alongside the corpse while swapping witticisms about life, death and politics with an investigator: Hamlet meets The Maltese Falcon.
The play also offers a bittersweet commentary on marriage, including some clever barbs about that most familiar and unknowable of God’s creations, the mind of one’s spouse.
The play is structured: There are marriage proposals at the start, which naturally leads to digressions, interruptions and a blizzard of coincidences. Everything wraps up with a scene involving mass arrests and multiple matrimony, recalling the ending of a Shakespeare comedy. Playwright Michael Hollinger also plants clues along the way, serving his mystery conceit.
But the tag-team genre shifts eventually leave you more disoriented than dizzy with delight. The play also is composed of numerous short scenes with set changes in between. And, despite a heroic effort from the crew, backed by the sound of plucky jazz to nurse the momentum while the lights are dim, things get a little choppy. The cast of six handles a much larger array of characters—more than usual for a B Street show. Some of the double casting will distract casual viewers who aren’t keeping both eyes on the ball.
Still, director Jerry Montoya and his cast come up with several very funny scenes. There’s a marvelous Dr. Strangelove moment of military and marital satire involving Kurt Johnson (in a welcome return to the B Street stage), D’Juan and Richard Winters, discussing the relative merits of seduction before matrimony while they wait to observe a nuclear-test explosion, eye-protecting goggles at the ready.
There’s also a barroom scene with the versatile Winters—this time a desultory Russian seaman, slurping vodka by the spoonful so he won’t get drunk too fast—chatting about love gone wrong with the worried Jamie Jones, another welcome B Street returnee and as appealing as ever. Also good is the mother-daughter bit involving Stephanie McVay and Erin Ailstock.
So, we’ll forgive the play’s silly ending, which even this crackerjack crew can’t carry off. It’s mostly the playwright’s fault, anyway.