The 1950s Cold War setting, film noir-inspired imagery, espionage plots and references to Joe McCarthy and Ike are all red herrings in “Red Herring,” Michael Hollinger’s patchwork comedy now in its Southern California premiere at the Laguna Playhouse. For all its superficial satirical trappings, show works best as a gentle meditation on the marital state, courtesy of three couples both considering and resisting those final vows. The dramatic event doesn’t amount to much, but there’s considerable charm in the playing.
At first “Red Herring” has murder and treason on its mind, as Boston cop Maggie (Kirsten Potter) investigates a washed-up stiff while her main squeeze, G-man Frank (Brendan Ford), runs down a Soviet spy ring. Back in Wisconsin, Senator Joe’s blonde daughter (Traci L. Crouch) has just been asked to serve as a courier for her physicist fiance (Brett Ryback) sharing H-bomb secrets with the Commies.
Two other Bostonians are caught up in the mysteries, the murdered man’s blowsy landlady Florence (DeeDee Rescher) and Andrei (Tom Shelton), a Russian fisherman with more than a casual connection to both landlady and deceased.
While helmer Andrew Barnicle labors mightily to find a consistent tone for the increasingly silly proceedings, the convoluted plot defeats him, compounded by the deadening rhythm of some two dozen scenes all ending with full blackouts.
Over time, however, the personal themes emerge and predominate, starting with the commitment issues underlying Maggie and Frank’s hard-boiled bickering. Blondie’s reluctance to pass along microfilm hidden in a Velveeta package (told you it gets silly) serves as a metaphor for any problematic request made by one’s intended, and the Russian visitor slowly reveals a romantic past impeding Florence’s efforts to woo him.
As the conspiracy nonsense is set aside, one settles in to enjoy six gifted thesps’ exploration of certain universal aspects of love, headed by Potter’s take-no-prisoners professional gal in the Rosalind Russell tradition, and Ford’s square-jawed gumshoe with a sensitive side.
Rescher and Shelton handle the broadest comedy assignments with variety and panache, while young lovers Ryback and Crouch transcend cliche to achieve some poignancy as their dilemmas deepen.
Stage is dominated by Bruce Goodrich’s mammoth re-creation of a Boston pier, little used and downright counterproductive when the action switches to Wisconsin. Mostly it just sits there while scenery is toted in and out downstage during those blackouts. Paulie Jenkins’ lights do what they can to minimize the behemoth construction’s impact and establish the right moods, while Julie Keen’s costumes place the characters squarely in the squarest of eras.