nytheatre.com review by Debbie Hoodiman
August 12, 2006
Red Herring is a two-man play exploring the psychology of a prisoner on Death Row just before he is executed, and his friendship with the man in the cell next door, whom he cannot see but who may be his only friend. On a simple set (design not credited, but it may be the work of director Jonathan Silverstein) consisting of two triangular platforms that allow audience members to see the exact size of the two men's cells, and the simplicity of what they have to call their own (a few books, a bed to sleep on, Scrabble pieces), the two prisoners talk through an imaginary wall between them. The two actors, Thomas Jefferson Byrd and Shane McRae, successfully accomplish the difficult task of communicating with one another, showing a real, believable relationship—and also conveying that there is distance between them and that they cannot see one another.
Michael Albanese's script has the two men spending Scrap's last day alive largely passing the time. As I watched, I thought about how central the task of passing the time must be to a prisoner's life, and the play does offer somewhat of a glimpse into what it must be like. The two men do calisthenics to keep in shape, and they play Scrabble to keep their minds sharp. (They each have a game board and game pieces, and they each set up the same board so that they can play). Their bickering demonstrates that they know one another well and have formed a rapport, with inside jokes and routines. At more poignant moments, the audience sees what unhinges each man, or causes him to lose his temper.
We learn about how tough both men have become in prison, and it becomes clear that Montgomery, an older black man, wants Scrap, a white prisoner in his 30s, to consider life beyond prison and beyond life. Thus, in the tag line for the play("You never know who's on the other side..."), the other side refers to the afterlife as well as the other side of the wall they share.
Albanese's script is a little reminiscent of the famous movie The Shawshank Redemption, especially in Montgomery's clever lines and delightfully confident personality that charmed the audience the night I attended. There is also a twist at the end, which takes the subject matter beyond the immediate. Although the play sometimes feels a little predictable and a little preachy at times, I enjoyed both actors' performances and the exploration of some of the issues a Death Row inmate deals with. The play runs a little over an hour with no intermission.