insightful in-depth reviews

7, Oct 2013
Bonito & Schmitt-Hall in Red Herring

Red Herring: fishing for Commies in Boston harbor

by Steve Cohen
The Cultural Critic

Red Herring. A romantic comedy by Michael Hollinger. Harriet Power directed. Villanova Theatre, 2013.


Red Herring is Michael Hollinger’s most complex play. His script intricately juggles a spy drama, romance, a spoof of film noire and a critique of 1950s American politics. This unfolds with humor and a convincing amalgamation of all elements into a clever ending.

It is 1952. Dwight Eisenhower is campaigning for president; America is about to test the H-bomb. And in this script, Senator Joe McCarthy’s daughter (Sophia Barrett) just got engaged to a Soviet spy and a Boston detective (Victoria Rose Bonito) needs to find out who dumped a dead guy in the harbor. Meanwhile, her FBI boyfriend (Seth Thomas Schmitt-Hall) is investigating a Russian spy ring and their two cases collide. Waters get choppy, you might say, as boats and relationships spring leaks.

One of the playwright’s best speeches compares marriage to a dory, a lightweight boat with a flat bottom that a loving couple must continue to bail in order to stay afloat.

A “red herring” is a fallacy that intentionally leads readers or characters towards a false conclusion. It is often used in detective fiction and in politics.

This cast can not match the star power of the 2000 premiere which featured Jennifer Child and Scott Greer as the romantic-though-competing couple. Some of the Boston accents sounded studied. Yet all of the cast showed versatility in multiple roles. The best was Raymond Saraceni, deftly balancing broad comedy with touching sentimentality in three parts, especially as the Russian spy Andrei. (Saraceni is a professor at Villanova, as is Hollinger, and Saraceni wrote the drama Maroons: the Anthracite Gridiron which earned my praise when it premiered at Iron Age Theatre in 2012.)

James F. Pyne’s set used rolling units that doubled as beds and as piers. The moving of props was cleverly accomplished by people wearing spy-like black hats. Winslow Homer’s painting “The Herring Net” appeared as a billboard along the back wall.

The music cues evoked 1950s notions about romance, with an occasional historical punch as when an H-bomb blast is quickly followed by “When the sky is a bright canary yellow” from South Pacific, of course.

The dialogue mentions Dick Nixon, Adlai Stevenson, the Rosenbergs, etc., as cultural markers. Some of the references sailed over the heads of theatergoers who didn’t live through the days of McCarthy and nuclear tests. (Neither did Hollinger, who was born in 1962 but who obviously did his homework.) Blank looks from folks in the audience make me wonder whether footnotes are needed to fully appreciate a topical piece like this.

Harriet Power directed all these intricacies in the manner of a Marx Brothers comedy.

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