Beware the play that demonstrates predictability as its chief trait, especially when the play is a comedy or a mystery. And, in the case of "Red Herring," which is having its Boston premiere with the Lyric Stage Company of Boston, beware the play that is billed as both a comedy and a mystery -- yet still manages to be dull.
It's possible that playwright Michael Hollinger intended "Red Herring" to be a sassy yet sweet-natured sendup of relationships and paranoia in 1950s America. Instead, he created a milquetoast dramatic dirge with only occasional spurts of originality. "Red Herring" weaves together several complexities as it follows the overlapping lives of people involved in murders, marriages, and espionage plots. All of the action is delivered in a film-noir style, which, in this script, means tough detective talk, shadowy lighting, and lots of scene changes.
The actors in the Lyric Stage production are a capable, even charming lot. In lesser hands, "Red Herring" would be a tragedy of the unintended sort. But once
All but one of the actors play multiple roles. In some cases, this adds an extra comedic twist, but in others it just adds time to the clock. Actress Sarah Newhouse is at the center of the swirl as straight-talking Boston detective Maggie Pelletier, investigating a waterside murder. Barlow Adamson plays her earnest beau, FBI agent Frank Keller, who believes the murder to be part of a larger Russian espionage plot. Swirling near them is another couple made up of Senator Joseph McCarthy's squawky daughter (Allison Clear with a killer Wisconsin accent) and a young scientist (a harmless Marc Harpin). And generally representing the wrong side of the law is the duo of Leslie Dillen and Richard Snee. Dillen appears most often as the sketchy Mrs. Kravitz, and Snee is Andrei Borchevsky, a sometime fisherman, lover, and vodka-soaked philosopher.
Director Courtney A. O'Connor does manage to preserve some of the intended mirth, giving Snee just the right amount of freedom in his characters to keep them silly even though he's in the middle of a whodunit.
The real mystery, however, is why Lyric Stage chose to produce this bland play in the middle of an otherwise impressive season. "Red Herring" should've been the fish that got away.
Play by Michael Hollinger
Directed by: Courtney A. OConnor. Set, Brynna Bloomﬁeld. Lights, John Cuff. Costumes, Gail Astrid Buckley.
At: The Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through March 19. 617-437-7172