It’s Chicago, 1929. “The streets are wet, the gin is dry, and danger lurks around every corner.” And, yes, “it was a dark and stormy night” when we meet the hero of A Matter of Red Herrings, Detective Stainless Steel, looking for a new partner after the untimely demise of her previous partner six months earlier. She gets Detective-in-Training Watley Holm, “overweight, over 50,” and generally not the type who finds their way into the crime-fighting business. And so begins a pitch-perfect pastiche of every hardboiled detective drama you’ve ever seen, read or heard. There are gangsters, showgirls, newsies, bad accents, horse races and priceless artifacts that go missing.
Though it might be “a little analogy heavy,” not to mention heavy in puns, metaphors, similes, cliches and idioms, many of which are alliterative or rhyming to boot, the literary excesses never swamp the narrative excesses, which deliver on the promise of red herrings, of which there are a boatload. Clocking in at an hour and 14 minutes, A Theater in the Dark’s latest audio play, A Matter of Red Herrings, hearkens back to the Golden Age of radio with a sly wink but clear appreciation for a bygone storytelling style.
Writer Greg Garrison captures the cadences and exceeds the excesses of noir writers like Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, as well as borrowing heavily from their tropes…and props. The clever script puts a contemporary spin on the genre, with literary Easter eggs and red herrings galore. There are double-crosses and misdirection that may make you want to rewind (“Wait, what were those horses’ names again?”). He also effectively lends his actual voice to the production as the laconic narrator and the menacing Irish gangster Wilhelm Wrong. His literary talents are well-matched by director and sound engineer Corey Bradberry, who keeps the pacing taut and avoids any audible winks at the audience—he understands the genre and creates a seamless audio experience that never feels either labored or rushed. He also lends his voice to the proceedings as the other Wrong brother, Rod. Together, Garrison and Bradberry are also responsible for the audibly rain and booze-soaked soundscape, with its horse races, door slams, car chases and night life. Complementing the drama is the music of Paul Sottnik, contributing a noir score as well as some period-perfect musical backing, including one show-stopping nightclub number (performed to perfection by Laura Michele Earle as Vesper Kind). The plot? Good luck untangling it before it unravels under the weight of its machinery. A priceless artifact goes missing, a horse race is fixed, identities are concealed and revealed (a mustache is invaluable), and alliances and dalliances are made and broken.
In addition to the director and playwright, the cast is full of talented voice actors who know their way around a murder mystery, playing heavily into archetypes while never forgetting to work the relationships. Amy Gorelow as Detective Stainless Steel, “the best ball-buster in the Burg,” excels at the art of monologuing, essential to every good gumshoe, giving Philip Marlowe a run for his money. Julian “joolz” Stroop has the perfect voice for the unexpectedly mercurial Detective-in-Training Watley Holm, who stumbles over early lessons, but develops powers beyond the monologue as the play progresses. As Detective Steel’s sharp-tongued, showgirl ex-wife, Laura Michele Earle channels both Lauren Bacall and Martha Vickers while taking control of every scene she enters. She also knocks her song out of the ballpark and plays several other characters. Rounding out the cast is Christopher Meister with a showy Spanish accent as Armand Valdoe, and a straight-from-central-casting gangland accent (is that Chicago? Hard to tell, but you’ve heard it before) as the truly terrifying “Windy City Widower” Vincent Valconi. Meister also plays multiple other roles. Between the voices and action, it seems like the cast is larger than it is, a testament to the vocal talents of all involved.
With some clever modern twists, a touch of soul-searching, and interesting explorations of characters, relationships and genre, A Matter of Red Herrings keeps the audience caring where the hair-pin plot twists and verbal convolutions are heading. Greg Garrison’s script is a worthy 21st Century riff on hardboiled detective fiction, a fine introduction for those unfamiliar with the style, and a fun trip back in time for those who have ventured into the genre before, with a near-constant stream of literary and movie references. Though the plot is appropriately convoluted, it’s a lot of fun to try to untangle the clues before Steel and Watley do. Paul Sottnik’s music wouldn’t be out of place in Casablanca. The direction by Corey Bradberry keeps the action and dialogue rapid-fire, and the intelligent cast makes the world of the audio play come to vivid life.
A Matter of Red Herrings will be available for streaming at www.atheaterinthedark.com beginning Thursday, August 4, 2022 for $10 per stream. Season passes ($25) and Patreon subscriptions ($3.25/month) are also available.