The Cary Players’ thoroughly entertaining production of playwright, screenwriter, and Villanova University theater faculty member Michael Hollinger’s quirky Cold War comedy Red Herring, set mainly in Boston during 1952, is a scream and further evidence of the group’s rapid emergence as an up-and-coming community theater. Triangle actor Mark Zumbach makes an impressive directorial debut with his frisky staging of this delightful whodunit, with its brooding film-noir ambience and hilarious black-comedy touches in characters and plot twists.

Instead of performing Red Herring with the usual three men and three woman, many playing multiple roles, Zumbach has cast seven men and five women, five of whom still play double or triple roles in this wonderful one-of-a-kind spoof of Cold War espionage dramas where the Red Menace is not only real, but pervades every stratum of society.

Steve Whetzel and Megan Navarette star as hard-boiled FBI counter-espionage agent Frank Keller and hopelessly obsessed Boston homicide detective Maggie Pelletier. This pair of workaholics meets in Boston and hooks up while he is frantically trying to plug a big leak in the nation’s H-bomb program and she is obsessively seeking the trail of the Mercury dime killer, who has eluded her for years and years.

Whetzel and Navarette are not the only couple whom the hunt for spies and a serial killer affects. Sarah Bunch and Jarrod Stuart co-star as U.S. Sen. Joe McCarthy’s hot-blooded daughter Lynn and her beau, youthful physicist James Appel; and Wilson Pietzsch and Collette Rutherford co-star as Russian fisherman Andrei Borchevsky and his landlady and secret lover Mrs. Kravitz.

Megan Navarette and Steve Whetzel give gritty performances as the gumshoes, and Jarrod Stuart and Sarah Bunch are highly amusing as a young couple who’s engagement is threatened by her father’s jihad against pinkos in government and the arts. But it is Wilson Pietzsch and especially Collette Rutherford who steal the show as their characters’ clandestine love affair heats up. Rutherford really sinks her teeth into the role of Mrs. Kravitz, whom she plays as one tough, wisecracking broad whom the investigators will overlook at their peril. But when Pietzsch, with his heavy Russian accent, has to pretend to be a mute Mr. Kravitz, hilariously miming his responses, he has the audience in stitches.

Dean Rayburn is funny as the stuffy Senator McCarthy and silly scientist Dr. Kasden, but he brings the house down as a parish priest hearing simultaneous confessions from two very persistent confessors who just won’t wait their turn. Jeff Buckner and Carol Oleson are good as the chairman of a congressional committee, Frank’s partner Petey, and a bartender and Mrs. Van Nostrand, whose bridal shop is turned upside-down when a drunken Frank barges in on Lynn and Maggie while they are trying on wedding dresses.

Jaret Preston is terrific as a goofy Republican coroner named Harry who really likes Ike, Mrs. Van Nostrand’s henpecked husband Herbert, and an incredulous congressional witness whom Senator McCarthy tries to intimidate; and Thom Haynes contributes three crisp comic cameos as a TV announcer, Woody, and Major Hartwell.

Kudos are also due to costumer designer LeGrande Smith, set designer Mark Zumbach, and lighting designer Greg Lytle, whose combined theatrical genius triumphs over the inherent limitations of the auditorium of the Old Cary Elementary School. This Red Herring really shows what a community theater can do on a shoestring budget.

Cary Players presents Red Herring Thursday-Saturday, June 8-10, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, June 11, at 3 p.m. at Old Cary Elementary School, 100 Dry Ave., Cary, North Carolina. $15 ($12 students and seniors 55+). Cary Players: [inactive 1/08].