A Fine Mess

HotHouse concludes its season with a smile

Kudos to HotHouse Theatre Company, which is wrapping up an ambitious four-play season of area (and even national) premieres. If the appetizing Kimberly Akimbo, the beefy Irish stew In a Little World of Our Own and the leafy-thin Omnium Gatherum were the dramatic equivalents of a three-course meal, then Red Herring, the current season closer, is a delectable dessert. Unlike those earlier offerings, Red Herring is not interested in serving up a message. Or if it is, that message is being drowned out by audience laughter.

In reality, the early 1950s was a bullying period scarred by blacklists, witch hunts and a chilling race between the United States and the Soviet Union for nuclear superiority. But in the lighthearted Red Herring, playwright Michael Hollinger has simplified 1952 into a one-dimensional backdrop for a mélange of quips and gags inspired by the era's movies and TV shows.

The fractured plot is a Mixmaster blend of murder and espionage suffused with romantic comedy. Three romances, actually. We could waste several column inches outlining what happens and to whom (for starters, Senator Joseph McCarthy's promiscuous daughter is enlisted as a Communist spy who must transport top-secret microfilm in a block of Velveeta), but such a chronicle would probably only confuse you. And Red Herring, as its very title implies, is confusing enough already. Better to see this Cold War comedy cold; if you do, chances are you'll be having too much fun to worry about such minor niceties as plot development or even common sense -- at least until after the evening has ended.

Director (and Riverfront Times theater critic) Deanna Jent has done a knockout job of channeling all this zaniness into a semblance of order. The savviest decision was made earliest: Although the script calls for six performers to triple up on eighteen roles, this production has been cast with nine actors. The three additions (Greg Johnston, Donna Weinsting and B. Weller, each terrific) handle all eleven supporting parts, thus allowing the six leads to stick to one role each. It sure helps with the clarity.

All the actors tap into the evening's loony-tunes tone, which is established early on by the hapless ingénues. Bridget Reilly is appealing as Senator McCarthy's slutty daughter, and Christian Navarrete is downright delightful as her dimwitted fiancé.

As a brusque Soviet agent, Stellie Siteman is a marvel of familiarity. Her performance is a nostalgic homage to the larger-than-life B-movie players from half a century ago. Early on she resembles Kathleen Freeman, that great comic foil to Jerry Lewis. In the next scene she's as sleekly insidious as the Spider Woman's Gale Sondergaard. Siteman is superbly subtle and droll -- and she's ideally matched by that deft farceur Terry Meddows as her bewildered love interest. Meddows' amiable, simpleminded Russian fisherman is constantly bewildered, because he rarely knows if he's alive or dead. It's always a pleasure to watch Meddows feather-sketch his characters; here he makes himself appear smaller by scrunching his head so deeply into his shoulders that his neck simply vanishes.

Try to imagine Phyllis Diller cross-breeding with Glenn Close, and you've come close to Lavonne Byers' no-nonsense homicide detective. Byers delivers her lines with such a sharp edge, a viewer runs the risk of getting a paper cut just listening to her. Chopper Leifheit, an FBI agent in pursuit of both the spies and Byers, has the most difficult challenge: He must anchor all this mayhem with rock-solid earnestness yet not slow down the shenanigans. He does -- and doesn't.

All the production elements enhance the proceedings. Jason Stahr's cleverly moody lighting pulls off that rare feat of making an onstage TV set seem believable. Justin Barisonek's symmetrical set is bookended by two bedrooms whose walls might have been torn directly from a newspaper cartoon page. And Cherol Bowman Daniels' amusing costumes enhance rather than merely dress the characters.

Everything works here, even some of the scene-change music that might have come from an old record album titled Film Noir Music to Ice Skate By. (Only in the 1950s would someone have arranged movie music for organ and drums.) Jent also makes inspired scene-bridging use of songs from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.

Ultimately, this frenetic kind of nonstop pace is tough to sustain. But despite a few arid patches, the production is an ironic hoot. The irony? That HotHouse should choose to conclude such an imaginative and original season by adhering to that oldest of theater clichés: Leave 'em laughing. Red Herring does that in abundance.