By Sarah Mankowski   Published Nov 25, 2005 at 5:20 AM

Next Act's stellar production of Michael Hollinger's hard-boiled comedy, Red Herring, successfully rendered Friday night's audience helpless with laughter.

"Stay alert," warned director David Cecsarini (who recently performed the lead role in their death row drama, Coyote on a Fence), as he gave a heads-up to those members sitting near entryways. Entrances and exits, however, weren't the only reason to keep your wits about you. The rapid-fire banter was so chock-full of puns, jokes and double entendres that, by the time you were getting one joke, another was sailing over your head. Throw in the Cold War and its parallels to love and marriage - "We have a Cold War kind of trust, based on a balance of power and a fear of mutual annihilation."

Scenic designer Rick Rasmussen did a wonderful job of minimizing set changes in a show that involved a huge number of scenes. A wooden pier ran along the back of the stage, abutted with heavily-roped pilings that also housed a telephone, which got a few laughs. The screen that served as a backdrop depicted images of Oglvies' Kippers as well as the McCarthy hearings. A wooden crate doubled as a bench, and a pull-out bed quickly emerged from beneath the pier.

Cecsarini's sound effects (is there anything this man DOESN'T do?) were also simple, but effective. Smoky sax and piano music between scenes maintained the pulp fiction atmosphere. His samples from the McCarthy trials lent an ominous air to the otherwise comedic goings on.

Another sobering moment that nicely complemented the hilarity was an atom bomb test with which Lynn's fiancé, James, was involved as a spy for the Russians. Images of mushroom clouds unfolded on the screen with the spotlights up full blast. Everything seemed to move in slow motion, mirroring James's feelings of "shock and awe" for lack of a better term to describe a nuclear explosion. This moment was then followed up with a cartoon of the "Duck and Cover" song that tells kids what to do when they see the "big flash." Chilling.

Other than that, however, it was pretty much non-stop hilarity. The confessional scene with Lynn and Andrei vying for the Irish priest's attention, sliding the confessional panels back and forth was priceless. "Hey, I thought this was first-come-first-serve," says Joe McCarthy's daughter, Lynn, played by Emily Trask, who recently starred in Chamber Theatre's production of Brighton Beach Memoirs. She managed to break out of her somewhat monotonic hysterically high-pitched tone of voice when she played a receptionist at the marriage license desk at City Hall who was fervently against marriage.

Former Theatre X veteran actor Deborah Cliften's wonderful portrayal of Mrs. Kravitz and a host of other characters made me miss the defunct company even more. Not to mention she sported some great rhinestone-studded cat-eyes.

Another testament to the high caliber of acting was the spot-on accents, which ranged from Russian and East Coast to Irish, Southern and Midwest, just to name a few. Even the physical comedy in the various chase scenes was exceptional. I was literally in tears with laughter watching the characters tripping over fishing gear and struggling for a box of Velveeta.

Next Act Theatre consistently delivers solid acting talent in an array of genres, and their production of "Red Herring" is no exception. I dare you to leave without having laughed yourself silly.

"Red Herring" runs through Sunday, Dec. 18. For more information, please call the Off-Broadway Theatre Box Office at (414) 278-0765.