Act II Playhouse presents Michael Hollinger’s ‘Red Herring’

Great catch

Philadelphia has enjoyed an influx of talented playwrights; as a result, theater here is much improved. For years, it seemed as if there was only Michael Hollinger, whose prolific output can be maddeningly inconsistent and intellectually pandering. To get a taste of him at his best, head to Ambler, where Act II Playhouse mounts a sharp revival of Red Herring under David Bradley’s gimlet-eyed direction.

Patrick Romano's James, a nuclear spy, proposes to Eileen Cella's Lynn. (Photo by Mark Garvin.)

A crowd-pleaser since its 2000 premiere, Red Herring gently spoofs film noir, screwball comedy, Commie panic, and 1950s social mores. Set in 1952, the plot follows Maggie Pelletier (Rachel Camp), a hard-boiled Boston detective whose latest murder investigation draws her into an underworld of intrigue and espionage.

The supposed stiff is an alleged Kremlin asset named Andrei Borchevsky (David Ingram, a superb clown). As it turns out, he’s alive and well and living with Mrs. Kravitz (wily Hayden Saunier), a salty landlady who knows more than she’s willing to say.

The web of lies also includes Lynn McCarthy (Eileen Cella), the surprisingly licentious daughter of a certain Wisconsin senator, who unwittingly finds herself engaged to a Soviet spy (Patrick Romano, endearingly earnest). Meanwhile, Frank (Charlie DelMarcelle), Maggie’s G-man boyfriend, just wants to run away to Cuba and elope.

The proof is in the production

As the title suggests, the cookie rarely crumbles the way you’d expect. Hollinger uses misdirection skillfully, hiding crucial clues in plain sight while focusing the audience’s attention on seemingly trivial matters. Like any good stylist, he understands that snappy banter can act as a fine tool for obfuscation. The strands tie together in the play’s final reckoning — perhaps a bit too neatly, but I had so much fun getting there I can’t complain. 

Bradley understands noir style and deserves high marks for assembling a crackerjack physical production. Colin McIlvaine’s eye-catching gray-wood sets suggest a black-and-white aesthetic, which Lily Fossner’s moody, low-key lighting slyly complements. Katherine Fritz’s costumes locate us squarely within the period, from Maggie’s standard-issue policewoman uniform to Lynn’s fruit- and floral-patterned empire-waist dresses. Samantha Reading’s stylized fight choreography quickens the pulse. Only the overlong scene changes cause the play’s ever-hurtling forward momentum to flag.

Some in the audience may remember the Arden’s nigh-legendary premiere production of Red Herring, which featured Jennifer Childs, Scott Greer, Mary Martello, and Tony Braithwaite (now Act II’s artistic director). That’s a tough group to follow, but the current cast doesn’t disappoint. Camp brings a welcome levity to Maggie, ostensibly the straight-woman; she also strikes a poignant balance when Maggie’s professional and personal lives hit the skids. DelMarcelle — an actor I’ve mostly encountered in intense dramatic roles — proves himself a loose-limbed funnyman of the first degree.

But the evening belongs to Cella, who steals scene after scene, ironically underplaying Lynn’s mix of naïveté and prurience. Armed with a twinkling smile and dead-on Wisconsin accent, she can turn the most banal observation into a screaming laugh line. (Dialect coach Melanie Julian deserves individual praise for Cella’s drawn-out vowels and Camp’s heavy Beantown brogue).

Hollinger may no longer be the only game in town, but Red Herring proves his success was no fluke. Dammit — I swore I’d get through this review without anything remotely resembling a fish pun! Oh well, take the bait: Act II’s production will win you over hook, line, and sinker.

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