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Theater Review:

Breakdown Theatre’s "RED HERRING" at Athenaeum Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

A contemporary play described as "a noirish comic fable" might spark hackneyed images of Raymond Chandler-esque flashing neon filtered through sharply angled Venetian blinds. Refashioned retro cliches can be as tiresome as the original femme fatales and wise-cracking dicks. But in his smart and resonant comedy-thriller, "Red Herring," playwright Michael Hollinger strips the saccharine veneer from his "I Like Ike"-era characters to expose a bitingly bitter assessment of marriage and fidelity against a backdrop of espionage.

Breakdown Theatre, a fairly new company consisting of several DePaul University alums, boasts a whip-smart cast on par with Hollinger’s sharply chiseled writing. The troupe, presenting the midwest premiere of "Red Herring" (which debuted last year in Philadelphia) at the Athenaeum Theatre, masters the playwright’s snap-crackle rhythms without sounding wooden or contrived.

Credit director Elise Aliberti with demonstrating a keen sense of pacing and an understanding of the intricate nuances required of deftly crafted irony.
So engrossed was I in "Red Herring’s," well, red herring of a plot that I found the time moving at breakneck speed – yet the ensemble never appeared rushed. Observing the witty, acerbic exchanges between the two protagonists was kind of like watching the brittle sparks fly between Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant in "His Girl Friday" – albeit with the cocky banter slowed down a few notches and sculpted around a more measured theatrical sensibility.

"Red Herring," set in 1952, ingeniously integrates a murder mystery with McCarthy-era paranoia and the squeaky-clean façade of happy homemakers and corny musical-theater classics. Hollinger lucidly sends his heroine, Boston-based FBI crime fighter Maggie Pelletier, on the trail of a killer with Soviet spy-ring affiliations. When a Russian herring fisherman named Andrei Borchevsky shows up "dead" on a Boston pier, a hilarious web of unexpected intrigue is set in motion.

Linked to the case is the seemingly pure but libidinous Lynn McCarthy (Senator Joe’s daughter) struggling with her recent engagement to James Appel, a Jewish physicist working as a spy for the Soviets in Los Alamos. He asks her to deliver microfilm, hidden in a box of Velveeta cheese, to a mysterious stranger on the Boston docks. Meanwhile, Maggie has romance troubles of her own. Pursued by over-earnest G-man (and former alcoholic) Frank Keller – whom she really loves – Maggie gets cold feet when he proposes. We later learn that she is married to someone else – maybe even a con man.

Through an artful weaving of fish metaphors, the playwright unites the good guys and bad guys at that fateful Boston pier only to end with the various suspects and detectives getting shackled to each other in marriage – suggesting, perhaps, a potentially drearier life sentence if clouded by idealism and false hopes.

This play works on so many revelatory levels, primarily one that shows the ludicrous sham of so-called 1950’s "innocence" while evoking a certain degree of empathy as to how those icons – from giddy young brides to blissfully baking moms – were cultivated.

"Red Herring" is no trivial whodunnit play or a rant against marriage. Instead it takes a mature look at how the familiar image of starry-eyed young couples in "love" (and/or denial) can possibly lead to devastating disappointments and betrayals. Hollinger uses an almost cartoonish genre to ultimately shed serious light on how people change, proving that once-perfect relationships can veer off in radically different directions. He explores this harsh reality through the lens of an era in American history that vigorously reveled in collective hypocrisy.

Breakdown Theatre’s razor-sharp ensemble dives into their juicy roles with a structured sense of abandon. Julie Granata, as the tough-edged, flat-footed Maggie, will knock your socks off. She never lets her snappy intonation be ruled entirely by 1950’s radio-drama stylistics. Granata graciously opts to integrate a sweetness and plausible ambivalence into her straight-talking heroine. Paul S. Holmquist as her manly love interest, Frank, matches Granata in his deliberate but mutitextured delivery. And Daniel Ruben endows the lovable but self-interested Andrei (who has a soft spot for recordings of "Oklahoma" and "South Pacific") with a riotously understated eccentricity.

Other on-target performances include Roger Ainslie’s boyishly engaging James and Lori Grupp’s three outrageous character roles, including a star turn as smart-aleck landlady Mrs. Kravitz.

The design team of Tom Burch (sets), Aimee Whitmore (lights), Bill Whipple (sound) and Mary Trumbour (costumes) may not favor elaborate vintage recreations, but their unselfconscious and stylish vision complements Hollinger’s fresh and unobtrusive take on bloated 1950’s values.•

Breakdown Theatre’s production of "Red Herring" runs through September 16 at the Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport. Tickets: $10-$14. Call 312-902-1500.

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