McCarthyite mirth

Special to The Times

It's 1952, and postwar America is regrouping. "I Love Lucy" rules Monday nights, Rodgers and Hammerstein dominate record players and "I Like Ike" is wending its way toward 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Meanwhile, the Senate hearings have upped the Red Scare, hydrogen is undergoing a Los Alamos overhaul, and communist paranoia has become as commonplace as microfilm hidden in Velveeta.

Such loopy elements float "Red Herring" in its top-notch Southern California premiere at the Laguna Playhouse. Michael Hollinger's film noir fable juxtaposes its theme (marriage) and content (Cold War hysteria) into a lightweight but tasty kettle of fish.

Make that kippers, as in Ogilby's Kippers -- "Put a fish in your pocket" -- hawked by the Winslow Homer billboard that overlooks designer Bruce Goodrich's imposing Boston pier set. FBI agent Maggie Pelletier (the expert Kirsten Potter) is more intent on the unidentified corpse fished from the harbor. This conveniently distracts her from the proposal dropped on her by Frank Keller (a fine-tuned Brendan Ford), her stoic partner.

Across the country, Lynn McCarthy (Traci L. Crouch, priceless), the daughter of a certain junior senator from Wisconsin, has tacit reasons to accept physicist James Appel (appealing Brett Ryback). Yes, there's that pesky little double life he's leading, but what's Soviet espionage in the face of true love?

Rounding out this sextet of irresolute lovers is gravel-voiced Mrs. Kravitz (scene-stealing Deedee Rescher), the victim's landlady, er, wife . . . well, her story changes. Let's just say that she and Andrei Borchevsky (Tom Shelton, hilarious), a hangdog Russian with his own marital baggage, haven't been making blintzes in the boarding house.

The best thing about "Red Herring" is how cleverly Hollinger convolutes his multiple plot lines without snarling them. Despite arbitrary historical facts and a bent for groaners ("Do you know how to make a stiff drink?" "Feed him salty foods"), Hollinger's skill is considerable.

Whenever "Red Herring" weds era shtick to narrative complications -- the bridal-shop shootout that closes Act 1, the transcontinental phone call and bipolar Catholic confessional that rouse Act 2 -- audience giddiness erupts.

Under Andrew Barnicle's smooth direction, the designs are solid, Julie Keen's costumes keen, David Edwards' sound cinematic and Paulie Jenkins' lighting suitably murky. Potter makes a deadpan feast of Maggie, and her colleagues, who deftly play various supporting roles in addition to their principal parts, are delightful.

True, "Red Herring" isn't really dark, or satirical, but an expansive "Your Show of Shows" episode with a sly modern awareness. Still, though the results are more expedient than hard-boiled, genre commentary trumped by romantic comedy, it's difficult to bemoan such a criminally satisfying escapist treat.

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'Red Herring'

Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Call for additional shows.

Ends: March 16

Price: $25-$65

Contact: (949) 497-2787, Ext. 1

Running time: 2 hours, 20 minutes

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