It was a dark and stormy Sunday afternoon when I entered the Little Theatre of Norfolk to see Red Herring. There was jazz music from the 1950s playing from the sound system and the stage was set as a lonely pier dock. My mood was expectant and anticipatory to be highly entertained by what I would see on stage. And I can say that I was not disappointed.
Michael Hollinger’s detective story and noir comedy, Red Herring, packs in a lot in its two hour and fifteen minute run time. There are three love stories, communist espionage, one murder mystery, and numerous mistaken identities built into this parody of the 1930s-’40s detective genre. In the highly capable hands of Little Theatre of Norfolk, it made for a very funny afternoon of silly but hilarious one-liners, and a perfect send up of all those Agatha Christie detective stories.
Director John Gillis, cast and crew have engagingly focused the play’s two dozen scenes in a way that effectively impels the many plot lines forward while leaving space for some very funny moments along the way.
The play begins in 1952 it’s the time of the McCarthy hearings- Dwight Eisenhower is running for president and there is a threat of the H-Bomb. We first meet Maggie Pelletier (Caity Brown) and Frank Keller (Sean Thompson). Maggie is investigating a murder on the Boston docks and Frank is pursuing leads on a spy ring. They are both romantically involved and Frank wants to make it official with a proposal of marriage but there is some hesitation from Maggie.
A surprise occurs when Maggie and Frank learn that they are assigned to the same case, an investigation of the murder of a Russian fisherman. We then meet Mrs. Kravitz (Alicia Wolters), the victim’s landlady, and her allegedly mute, faux husband (Howard Marchant). As our law-enforcement lovers are gathering evidence from the crime scene, James (Nick Nauert), an idealistic young physicist, is asking a seemingly innocent girl to go steady—and she just happens to be Joseph McCarthy’s daughter—to marry him. But no sooner has Lynn McCarthy (Amber Uphold) accepted than James makes a surprising revelation: he’s passing blueprints of the H-bomb to the Soviets—and he wants her to help him.
Eventually, all three storylines intersect in a plot that mixes marriage, microfilm, mistaken identity, a bridal salon, a nuclear test, and a box of Velveeta.
Caity Brown makes an excellent determined Maggie, her hard-boiled toughness never getting in the way of her charm. Her love interest, a spy-chasing FBI agent played by Sean Thompson, is endearing with a heart of gold. At his best in such broad comic roles, Thompson also portrays a harried priest trying to hear dueling confessions and a military man expounding about marriage being based on a “balance of power and a mutual fear of destruction”.
Amber Uphold plays the not-so-naïve daughter of Sen. Joseph McCarthy, the notorious communist hunter. Amber is also terrific as the marriage clerk displaying great deadpan humor. Her romance with the young scientist, played by Nick Nauert, gets twisted significantly when he asks her to undertake an espionage mission. Nick Nauert had some great moments as the over-the-top coroner. Amber and Nick’s characters need to constantly adjust their relationship, as in one off-kilter phone call, the pair winningly conveyed a ditsy struggle to remain “innocent” in troubled times.
Howard Marchant plays a Russian fisherman whose funniest moments come when he keeps his mouth shut. Alicia Wolters portrays both Lynn’s puritanical mother and a scheming landlady. Alicia demonstrated some great comedic timing in the scenes with Howard and Frank. All except Marchant play multiple roles. Each actor delivered some very credible accents and dialects. The accents included Boston, Southern, Irish and Russian.
Shawn Crawford’s handsome dockside set design allows for quick transitions. My one quibble with the set design is that I wish there was more room for the entire cast on the dock during the last scene and that it was more down stage.
Alicia Wolter’s lighting was truly expert. The lighting effectively highlighted each scene and mood. Clear evidence of Wolter’s expertise was with the confessional scene and the H-Bomb test.
John Robert’s soundscape adds to the atmosphere with some well-selected snippets of vintage jazz. My one suggestion for improvement is the dockside water sounds were a bit too load. I had difficulty catching every word of some characters because of the too-loud ambient noise.
Danielle Gaine’s costumes seemed authentic and properly captured the personality of each character.
My verdict is that Red Herring at Little Theatre is well worth your time and money. You will have a fun time with the characters as they try to solve the murder and their relationships.
Go See It!
Little Theatre of Norfolk “Red Herring” by John Gillis, through permissions granted by Dramatist Play Service Inc Performances take place at Little Theatre of Norfolk , on January 11 – February 3 2019 . Get more info, prices, and purchase tickets here or by calling 757-627-8551