Red Herring

Breakdown Theatre

at the Athenaeum Theatre

By Jack Helbig

Political satire and romantic comedy don’t mix easily. Satire is sharp, skeptical, and at times downright caustic (think of Jonathan Swift’s “Modest Proposal”: eating Irish babies to reduce the island’s surplus population). The goal of a good romantic comedy, on the other hand, is not to expose moral failings but to bring lovers together. Satire is a rant, romantic comedy a love song with punch lines.

The distinction goes back to ancient Greece: satire–“old comedy,” practiced by Aristophanes–was supplanted by “new comedy,” developed by Menander when Athens turned from a more or less healthy democracy into a dictatorship. Unable to get away with the stinging lampoons that were Aristophanes’ bread and butter, Menander wrote about family and marriage, subjects unlikely to anger those in power.

Playwright Michael Hollinger has no such excuse. His Red Herring, being given its midwest premiere by the year-old Breakdown Theatre, begins as a solid satire with arch, hard-boiled dialogue, underscored in this production by Aimee Whitmore’s wonderful noirish lighting. But eventually the play turns into a fairly silly romantic comedy. There’s something cowardly about the way Hollinger avoids all controversy while touching on such potentially charged subjects as communism in the 50s, Joe McCarthy’s cockeyed red-baiting, nuclear proliferation, and the selling of state secrets to Stalin’s bloody regime. I felt cheated by this bait and switch because political satire is more rare, more intellectually challenging, and more difficult to do well than romantic comedy.

Hollinger’s work was last seen in Chicago a year and a half ago, when Next Theatre produced Tiny Island, about an elderly woman reminded of her personal losses by the imminent closing of her family’s movie palace. Like Red Herring, it promised much–in this case a great statement about romance and cinema and a long life–and delivered little, mere reductive explanations.

Red Herring has plenty of potential for vicious, incisive humor. Set in 1952, during the McCarthy hearings, it seems to send up three FBI agents who are way too serious about their work: one nondescript male, a gutsy woman, and her handsome but kind of dim partner-lover. They’re on the trail of a spy ring that’s been passing H-bomb secrets to the Soviets. Meanwhile one spy, a meek physicist, has become romantically entangled with Joe McCarthy’s daughter. Hollinger got many of his espionage details–the scientist stealing secrets from Los Alamos, hiding microfilm in mundane objects–from the famous cases of Alger Hiss and the Rosenbergs, opening the way for a stinging critique of cold war politics.

But then the plot line involving the spy-scientist and McCarthy’s daughter takes over, devolving into standard sitcom farce: she loves him but doesn’t think daddy will approve of his profession (!) so makes up a series of half-baked lies. In one silly sequence, she tells her mother that her Jewish lover–the McCarthys are portrayed as inflexible Irish Catholics–is Quaker, then hurriedly adds that that’s OK since notorious red-baiter Dick Nixon is also Quaker. But this oblique bit of social satire is soon overwhelmed by farce.

Similarly, the plot line involving the FBI turns into a standard-issue love story spiced with a little 50s-era police work, fingerprint checks and the like. You’d never know from this play how scary the FBI was in the 1950s and how paranoid and homophobic the closeted Hoover was, willing to trample the constitution and individual rights to further his political ends. You’d never know that Joe McCarthy was a drunk and a liar and not just a benign kook–though most of the comedy in the McCarthy household scenes does revolve around shameful secrets.

In fact Hollinger’s comedy is usually based in deceit and shame: all the characters go to extremes to hide key information and then are forced to fess up in embarrassingly public situations. In one hilarious sequence, a normally talkative Russian immigrant connected to the spy ring makes up a sign language on the spot to “prove” he’s mute. Of course Hollinger lifted this bit from Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn–which takes nothing away from its humor, especially when the Russian is so superbly played by seasoned actor Daniel Ruben.

In the end Hollinger’s references to the political events and figures of the early 50s are just so much local color for his characters and their romantic intrigues. Only one of them has any sense of what’s happening politically: a nutty FBI coroner who perhaps likes Ike a little too much and looks forward to “the end of the New Deal.”

On the plus side, Hollinger is quite sure of himself with romantic comedy, and he has a nice feel for comedic excess. He keeps the three love stories clicking along (the third involves the “mute” Russian and his landlady). And he packs the second act with reversals and revelations, most of them of the soap opera variety–one character is pregnant, another already married, a third was blinded at a nuclear test site. These surprises come so quickly it’s hard not to be swept up by the hilarity.

Only on reflection does one see how Hollinger shrank from the promise of his opening scenes. And Elise Aliberti’s bland but technically proficient production does nothing to overcome the weaknesses in the script. All the actors know their lines and blocking. No one pushes too hard to make the comedy work. It’s all very nice, but not very good.

Only Ruben is comfortable enough to turn little chuckles into big laughs. Everyone else minces around the edges of the comedy, settling for the myriad half smiles Hollinger’s witty but ultimately timid script produces.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Danielle Corches.