It's certainly possible that in 2003 a local playwright will write a funnier play than Ari Hoptman's The Quick and the Red. (Hoptman himself has a show coming up at the Fringe, so there's one contender.) But I doubt it. At some point during Fifty Foot Penguin's premiere of the comedian-actor-writer-philologist's red-scare spoof, I tried to remember when Woody Allen last made a movie with a comparably high laughs-to-jokes ratio. I later conceded--and this will be viewed by most as a major concession--that it might have been 2000's Small Time Crooks, too recent and too poorly reviewed to be quite the comparison I was after, but as a disgruntled but loyal Woody Allen fan, let it stand as high praise. Really, the laughs-to-jokes ratio here is no higher than the alcohol content of your average wine cooler, but that's only because nearly every line is a joke.
In the opening scene, FBI agent Vernon Feeney (Ben Chadwick) searches for "foul and fetid" communists fomenting subversion in the home of his Cleaver-like aunt and uncle, played with zesty irony by Karen Wiese-Thompson and Randall J. Funk. Throughout the play, Feeney never holsters his gun, a running gag that's especially effective when he uses his pistol hand to write a check or make an emphatic gesture. His macho strut is amusingly undermined by his suit trousers, which unwittingly nod to the slow-building male-capri-pant movement. That's one of many lapses in judgment the superpatriotic Webbers are quick to forgive in their nephew. "You're so much more dedicated than our own son," says Mr. Webber. "Don't get me wrong, we have a very real fondness for him," he adds, without much commitment. "Thank you, father," replies son Don (Don Eitel), who we now realize is in the room and accustomed to parental belittlement.
There are loads of similarly dry one-liners in Hoptman's second full-length play, plus loopier stuff that feels like the happy product of deadline-driven whimsy. Don is an up-and-comer with the public relations firm Hanson, Liebowitz, McCullough, Balthazar, and Kincaid. (Their slogan: "If you need advertising or some sort of public relations work done, well, there we are.") Disgusted by the prospect of promoting a seemingly unelectable senatorial candidate (David Schlosser), Don falls in with a gang of unnatural plotters. The Friends of the Beyond (FOB), which contracts Don for his PR expertise, are set on using the fledgling American Communist-Sympathizer Labor Party (Hoptman, as you can gather, is a fan of the comic potential of linguistic bulk) to orchestrate world domination.
The scenes that center on the Friends of the Beyond--an organization that includes pacesetting bloodsucker Dracul (Mark L. Mattison), Russian temptress Maria (Tina Frederickson), and a cynical Jesus (Edwin Strout)--are the play's weakest. This is mostly because the vampire and messiah jokes tend to be the most familiar and facile, though Dracul's opposition to the two major political parties on the grounds that they "both support federal subsidies to growers of wolfbane" is a notable exception. The most amusing supernatural character is a mild-mannered zombie played with relaxed charm by Matthew G. Anderson, who displayed a parallel affability in a more serious role in Park Square's An Experiment with an Air Pump.
The Quick and the Red, which runs about a half-hour longer than need be, drags during Act 2. It's to director Zach Curtis's credit that the show doesn't drag more. Even when the play's pinko gags and McCarthy-era send-ups wear thin, the staging maintains an impressive briskness. Fifty Foot Penguin draws from a sort of informal union of actors, and the selfless cast play off each other like friends at a charades party. Wait a second: unions, selflessness, fancy-pants parlor games--these foul and fetid bastards are communists!