By Joseph Szalinski
There’s been a murder at Trafford Performing Arts Center! Thankfully, it’s only onstage and part of The Theatre Factory’s fifth production of their 2022-2023 season, Red Herring. The play, from a script by Michael Hollinger, and directed by Joe Eberle, is a comedy-noir that finds three couples and a gaggle of wisecracking family and friends embroiled in a killing that may be connected to some covert Cold War shenanigans. Hilarity ensues.
While I had issues with the story itself, and other elements of the writing, the production managed to mine the text expertly enough to put on an entertaining show.
Frank (Justin Mohr), an FBI agent with the hots for homicide cop, Maggie (Misty Challingsworth), is a little more over-easy than hardboiled, but unlike a P.I., he has a government pension and health benefits. He’s the least dynamic of the characters, but when he cracks and his life becomes slightly scrambled, Mohr’s performance soars.
Challingsworth plays a wickedly tenacious Boston detective who’s a tad hesitant to return Frank’s advances. She’s able to transcend the trope-laden bounds of her character, heavy-handed dialogue and all, to deliver a performance exceedingly more palatable than Maggie’s meals.
Wrapping up the law-adjacent lot are Noah Kendall and Matt Solter, who each play a variety of roles. Kendall is introduced as Woody, a crime scene photographer, ahem…artist, and then later as Harry, a cornfed coroner who really likes Ike. While the former is but a blip in the narrative, it’s the latter that showcases the actor’s talents, and even overshadows his later appearance as a bartender. Solter, in similar fashion, is introduced as Petey, Frank’s coworker, a role that allows him to show off some dramatic chops, but also allows for a couple of chuckle-eliciting lines. His most comedic performance comes as Herbert the hunchbacked husband, who dutifully attends to his delightfully domineering wife, Mrs. Van Nostrand (Marie Chonko). The remaining two “appearances” of his are as the polite Dr. Kasden and as the corpse.
Playing Mrs. Kravitz, an innkeeper who harbors the play’s miscreants near the harbor, is Amy Mellisen, who shows the audience how to properly talk to the police. She is complemented by Jaron Carlson’s character, Andrei, a Russian fisherman who’s arguably the most likeable character, due in part to his humanity, affinity for the arts, unique accent, and the most unorthodox manner of communication.
Rounding out the cast are Louisa Pastorius, Mike Crosby, and Jim Kiley. Pastorius primarily portrays Lynn (Senator Joe McCarthy’s Daughter), the ditzy fiancée of physicist James (Crosby). Lynn is the most engaging character, for both her humor and the guilt that plagues her throughout the show. When not playing a passenger even Charon wouldn’t kick off his boat, Pastorius is uproarious as a clerk at the marriage office in city hall. Crosby does a great job of playing a commie who used to spy with his little eye, who then becomes a quasi-Quaker-cuckold whose newfound blind faith is the least irritating thing about him. His scenes with Marie Chonko as Lynn’s mother are where the two thespians shine. Kiley, who has some of the most subversive lines as a priest and then as Major Hartwell, sadly goes underutilized. While the characters themselves couldn’t really be expanded, he easily could’ve picked up one of the extra roles his castmates were granted.
On a technical level, the production excels. Although the blackouts are a tad long, it’s impressive that all of the scene changes can be accomplished in the dark; all being done about a set that’s marvelous in its continual evolution and use of space. Costume changes are done almost as effortlessly. The music perfectly complements the upcoming scene, or in one case, adds humor to a scene that just ended.
All in all, this is a production that demonstrates proper execution can elevate any script, permitting the cast has chemistry and that the crew helps to develop a world that can intrigue an audience and hold their collective fascination for a couple hours.
“Red Herring” runs until May 27 at the Trafford Performing Arts Center, 235 Cavitt Avenue, Trafford, PA 15085. For more information, click here.