If the play Red Herring were a hand of blackjack, it'd be a push, the kind that comes after you get two face cards and the dealer is showing two 7s—and then turns over a 6.
Michael Hollinger's theatrical pastiche of American cinema styles ranging from screwball comedy to film noir is very, very close to being a very, very good play. It's funny, moves like a juiced-up fastball and is irresistibly entertaining. But as tantalizing as it might feel at times, it's just as frustrating. Though you may walk out chuckling at one of the snappy one-liners, it's hard to shake the impression you've just watched a gussied-up episode of Three's Company (okay, maybe Get Smart), albeit one crafted by Raymond Chandler.
Then again, Jack, his two beards and his Regal Beagle cronies never dealt with hydrogen bombs, Senator Joe McCarthy's red-baiting and pickled herring. If they had, the result might be Red Herring, for rarely does a play so concerned with such weighty subjects as political espionage, the race for nuclear supremacy and mass hysteria feel so slight and insignificant. That's not to imply the play doesn't work—just not as effectively as it wants to.
But don't blame this production. Director Andrew Barnicle is a talented director, and this stylized, wisecracking tale of harried gumshoes and the salty characters they encounter on Boston's foggy docks seems tailor-made for his sensibilities. The play looks and sounds terrific; there's never a dull moment onstage, and Barnicle has coaxed his actors into wildly funny and thoroughly crafty performances. The six-person cast is uniformly excellent (longtime Laguna Playhouse stalwart Tom Shelton has never been better), and actors are called upon to play multiple roles, often changing characters and costumes in a few heartbeats.
Red Herring works as solid comedic entertainment. But the backdrop against which Hollinger's characters romp winds up siphoning energy rather than ratcheting up the story's intensity to the point of impending catastrophe that so much great comedy—from the Marx Brothers to Noises Off—achieves. Repeated references to congressional hearings on the Communist infiltration of the U.S. State Department, nuclear tests in the South Pacific, and Dick Nixon's Checkers speech feel unnecessary at best and downright annoying at worst (does the play's ingénue really have to be McCarthy's daughter?).
The distractions might be part of Hollinger's master plan. The play's title applies to both its story (commies and herring are key elements) and the presence of plot devices that might be included to divert viewers from more important events. The problem is that what's truly important to Red Herring—the stumbling attempts by three vastly different couples to find love—isn't really as important, or at least dramatically explosive, as political witch-hunts and blowing up the world.
The result is a play operating on tracks heading in opposite directions. One is a romantic comedy masquerading as soft-boiled political thriller hell-bent on reaching the land of Hollywood schmaltz and corniness. The other is more concerned with riffing on some of the turbulent political events in post-World War II America. Where that one is supposed to lead is anyone's guess.
But it's still an enjoyable ride, thanks to a stellar production. And even if Hollinger's knocks on Mormons, Chinese call girls, and henpecked husbands and their battle-axe-wielding wives seem tired at times, it's hard not to appreciate a play in which a taciturn military commander thinks a poodle has fucked his wife back home, or when someone's loathing of New Deal Democrats manifests in an equal hatred of dimes:
"Just because my daddy voted Democratic doesn't mean I have to carry Roosevelt around in my pocket."
Red Herring at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Rd., Laguna Beach, (949) 497-2787; www.lagunaplayhouse.com. Tues.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 & 8 p.m. Sun., 2 p.m. Also March 9, 7 p.m. Through March 16. $25-$65.