With many detective stories, it doesn’t really matter whodunit. When director Howard Hawks and novelist William Faulkner adapted Raymond Chandler’s “The Big Sleep” for the big screen, audiences and even members of the production couldn’t puzzle out all the perpetrators. Film critic Roger Ebert suggests that “The Big Sleep” remains popular because “the movie is about the process of a criminal investigation, not its results.”
Playwright Greg Garrison satirizes the hard-boiled private-eye genre — the likes of “The Big Sleep” and Dashiell Hammett’s “The Maltese Falcon” — with the Collective Project’s world premiere of “The Red Herring,” playing through July 29 at the Goat Farm Arts Center. It follows a phrase-coining gumshoe through a labyrinthine criminal plot that involves blackmail, horse racing and murder. But the convoluted storyline turns out to be the least of the play’s problems, even though it’s clearly a labor of love for the Collective Project.
Matthew Myers plays Stainless Danger Steel, a cynical, boozing Chicago private detective during the Prohibition Era. The story begins when Steel gets a new partner, naïve Whatley (Matt Bartholomew), and a new case thanks to his smoldering ex-wife Vesper Kind (Melissa Oulton). Vesper approaches the private eyes on behalf of her fiancé, Armand (Will Jones), who collects rare antiquities, including the priceless Red Herring of the title. Armand has staked a lot of money on an upcoming horse race and hires Steel and Whatley to ensure that no one tries to fix it. So many characters assume different identities or false fronts that their plans grow increasingly obscure.
“The Red Herring” shows less concern with the nuances of the mystery plot than with developing Steel’s character and goofing on the private-eye genre. It opens with the famously wheezy line “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the characters frequently draw attention to their would-be clever turns of phrase. At one point, Armand reveals that he keeps his priceless collectibles, such as the Maltese Falcon, in “the Ark of the Coveted.” Fortunately, the Collective Project takes the audience’s groans in good stride.
Steel even credits his “monologuing” as part of his detective work. When he needs a case, he launches a flowery soliloquy and potential clients inevitably enter his office. Myers’ delivery suggests a cross between Garrison Keillor’s ruminative Guy Noir and the punchy pronunciation of Don Adams’ Maxwell Smart.
The play takes palpable pleasure in riffing on vintage movie conventions, from live piano accompaniment to old “opening credits” that identify the actors via their silhouettes. When the pianist plays a dramatic sting — dum-dum-DUM! — frequently the private eyes look around to see where the music’s coming from. “The Red Herring” unfolds very much in the spirit of a “Carol Burnett Show” sketch, only with a lengthy script and a leaden pace.
Its best moments involve a pair of Irish hoodlums called “The Wrong Brothers,” fast-talking Rodriguez (Corey Bradberry) and hotheaded Wilhelm (Patrick Baxter). Between Bradberry’s acerbic brogue and Baxter’s menacing physicality, the Wrongs’ scenes snap with lighthearted intensity otherwise in short supply here. At one point, a chase breaks out in little prop cars. Little prop cars are nearly always funny.
The Goat Farm’s Rodriguez Room provides a fitting venue for the production: the old industrial facility feels like a film noir location in its own right. Unfortunately, the space includes support posts that occasionally block the sight lines of the actors’ faces. The complicated set changes and the device of having actors identify the scenes by number and title impede the momentum even further.
Overall, “The Red Herring” seems to occupy a grey area between spoof and sincerity. Steel’s investigation parallels his efforts to regain his confidence, stop blaming himself for his partner’s death and open up to other people. But if the play is interested in using an old-school genre to explore loneliness and regret, why is it so silly? And given its penchant for puns and stylistic parody, why is it so drawn out and ponderous? As in the case of “The Big Sleep,” some mysteries never offer up easy answers.