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Red Herring Playwright: Michael Hollinger
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2001-08-22

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A "red herring," in literature, is a device employed by fugitives to misdirect pursuers. The decoy in Michael Hollinger's award-winning play of the same name is a ring of communist spies...RED herring, get it?...one of whom is, in fact, an industrial angler for Ogilby's ( "Put a fish in your pocket" ) Kippers. But don't be fooled by the microfilm in the velveeta, the bomb tests in the South Pacific or the corpse with too many names. These Cold War shenanigans are merely the obstacles in what is, ultimately, a love story.

Three love stories, actually. Gumshoe Maggie Pelletier and G-Man Frank Keller are ready to tie the knot, just as soon as they stop squabbling over the identity of the dead man washed up on a Boston pier. Lynn McCarthy, daughter of right-wing Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is delighted to marry government scientist James Appel...until he confesses that his principles have led him to become a Soviet agent. And Andrei Borchevsky smuggles secret documents in his fishing boat for the Kremlin in order to protect his imprisoned wife, although he and Mrs. Kravitz, his American landlady, have grown fond of one another. The path of true love never ran smooth, but these are speed-bumps to stall even the most stalwart sweethearts.

This type of comedy, as many a playwright has discovered, is likewise more difficult to write than it appears. Not only must we puzzle over the plot without ever losing track of its course, but the characters must be sufficiently sympathetic and complications intriguing to sustain suspense until all the questions have been answered to our satisfaction. But Hollinger wisely resists the impulse to clutter his story with extraneous embellishments, instead keeping his film-noir dialogue subdued and its speakers no quirkier than necessary to showcase his whodunwhat's artfully crafted structure.

The company assembled by Breakdown Theatre director Elise Aliberti for this midwest premiere also rejects actorly excess, maintaining a firm but never ham-handed approach to their personae...no small task for seven actors playing 17 roles...resulting in clean, intelligent performances that navigate the text's intricacies with nary a misstep. Suburban theaters still mired down in revivals of Sleuth and Deathtrap would do well to check out this Philadelphia import.


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