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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Red Herring: A Convoluted Film Noir Farce

12 Miles West in Montclair is an exceptionally able little theatre company. Think of it as the little company that could. The production that it has given Red Herring, Philadelphia based playwright Michael Hollinger's 2000 farce, is so outstanding that one might think that it could restore life. However, the farce itself is simply too wearyingly overstuffed and unfocused for more than intermittent resuscitation.

The principal characters are three pairs of lovers whose lives intertwine via their involvement in a cold war espionage caper. The time is 1952 and the events take place in a variety of Boston locations with brief forays to Wisconsin and the South Pacific.

Maggie, a hardboiled Boston police detective, is being courted by Frank, an FBI agent. Maggie is investigating the murder of a Russian fisherman and Frank is trying to track down spies who are attempting to deliver nuclear secrets to the Soviet Union.

One of the Soviet spies is the (actually not murdered) Russian fisherman who is aided and abetted by his landlady-lover, the very strange Mrs. Kravitz.

Finally, we have Lynn, the daughter of Senator Joe McCarthy. She reluctantly participates in the transfer of information to the Soviets at the behest of her Jewish physicist fiancé James. James has stolen the secrets from Los Alamos in order to bring about inhibiting nuclear parity between the US and the Soviets.

The twists and turns of the plot lack the internal logic which would allow us to suspend disbelief. Somewhere in the mix is a Hollinger treatise on love and marriage. Sadly, the play lacks the incisiveness and believability of character for it to make much of an impact. Although Andrei's observation that marriage is like a leaky boat which will sink if neither husband nor wife occasionally bail it out is persuasive.

What remains is a take-off on the taut, black and white, often Grade B mysteries of the '40s and '50s which earned our suspension of disbelief with their punchy dialogue, clever plots, stylish and innovative photography, and crisp direction. Red Herring repeatedly relies on satirizing the corny, but effective, musical underscoring as each revelation and twist is uncovered by the startled and dismayed characters. The play is too convoluted and repetitious in its devices to deliver the sustained laughter to compensate for its uninvolving characters.

The production itself, however, is so spiffy that there are any number of incidental pleasures along the rocky road. It should also be noted that there are several truly funny comic ideas scattered about that are sharply written.

In addition to playing the three couples, the six member cast assays about a dozen character roles including military personnel, a medical examiner, a priest, a bartender, and Mrs. Senator Joe.

Particularly outstanding is the extraordinary Al H. Mohrmann who continues to enrich this NJ theatre season. As fisherman-spy Andrei Borchevsky, he is a farcical delight and creates a convincing character. Mohrmann makes the most of some of Hollinger's best ideas.

In order to hide Andrei's Russian identity and accent from Frank, Mrs. Kravitz tells him that Andrei is her husband (Mr. Kravitz) and that he is deaf. The startled Andrei then invents his own sign language which she translates into answers of her own devising. In a later scene, Andrei, a Rodgers and Hammerstein buff, is asked to account for his accent, and he states that it is an Oklahoma accent. When asked what part of that state he comes from, he responds, "the coast."

Lenni Benicaso delivers an appropriately all out, over the top, caricatured performance as Mrs. Kravitz.

Rick Delaney as Frank and Liz Zazzi as Maggie (with a terrific Boston working class accent) play perfectly in tandem. Their dead pan humor is ideal for the least farcical of the three couples.

The juveniles, Darcie Young and Robert Carr as Senator Joe's daughter and her fiancé, get to strut their stuff in a hilarious scene in which they talk on an international phone line with an about ten second delay. The ease and perfection with which they deliver this hilarious sequence is most impressive.

The large, complex, handsome and evocative unit set by Jessica Parks is delightfully playable. It is mostly open, but has wood platforms, any number of distinct playing areas, suggestions of a boat and harbor pier, and a brick appearing back wall with a handsome reproduction of a painting of fishermen at sea as part of an ad for kippers which amplifies the text.

Director Brian B. Crowe maintains a crisp pace and elicits fine ensemble performances from his cast.

Red Herring continues performances through May 9, 2004 by the 12 Miles West Theatre Company, 488 Bloomfield Avenue, Montclair, NJ 07042. Box Office: 973-746-7181; online

Red Herring by Michael Hollinger; directed by Brian B. Crowe. Cast: Liz Zazzi (Maggie Pelletier); Rick Delaney (Frank Keller/ etal.); Darcie Young (Lynn McCarthy, etal.); Robert Carr (James Appel, etal.); Leni Benicaso (Mrs. Kravitz, etal.); Al H. Mohrmann (Andrei Borchevsky, etal.)

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Bob Rendell

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