The ingenuous new British import, “The 39 Steps,” is a shamelessly silly spoof of the classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock suspense thriller of the same name. Directed by Maria Aitken, the award winning West End production being presented by the Roundabout at their American Airlines Theater is a ditzy delight performed by an accomplished cast of four actors playing all the roles.
The film was based on John Buchan’s 1915 spy novel, but little about the predecessors could possibly prepare you for the evening’s outrageous shenanigans. Absolutely everything is played for laughs. There is much clowning and wordplay with numerous double entendres. The splendid ensemble with little more than “smoke and mirrors” weaves a magic spell of clever stagecraft that pays homage to “less is more.” Their superbly smudged balancing act will keep you smiling the entire way, as they use every simple trick in the book to astonishing effect. Out of thin air with the subtlest of props they create imaginary planes, trains, doors and windows while switching characters and costumes with lightning speed.
The evening is a zany mix of melodrama, slapstick, sight gags, mime and physical humor as we follow the suave Richard Hannay through Scotland where he is pursued by ruthless spies. He hilariously stays barely a step ahead of the villains, managing to escape whenever they catch him.
Reprising his original role from the London production the marvelously droll Charles Edwards plays the innocent man. He is lured into a world of intrigue when he brings home a mysterious woman played by Jennifer Ferrin. The woman claims to be a spy and when she is murdered in his apartment, the tale takes flight in a series of swiftly moving short scenes that send up the Hitchcock film noir. An organization known as “The 39 Steps” seeks to avenge her death and the police will hunt him down as well. Richard will meets a beautiful blond (Ms Ferrin again) on a train while trying to escape Scotland Yard and a dash of romance will be added to the storyline.
The other two talented actors, Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton, play all the other roles, which must be well over 50 different parts. The work is a testament to their sublime skills reminiscent of Laurel and Hardy and more.
Using a minimalist concept on a simple stage, the actors are consummate physical comedians playing in perfect synch with one another while whipping a silly soufflé out of the slimmest of plots. There are many amusing nods to other Hitchcock classics like “Psycho,” “The Birds,” “Rear Window,” and “Strangers on the Train that will surely please his dedicated fans.
The winning evening is a minor miracle, but “The 39 Steps” is stretched to the breaking point and ultimately a little show; much too small for Broadway. I would love to see the evening trimmed a bit and played without an intermission in a considerably smaller house.
By Gordin & Christiano
Originally Published in Dan’s Papers
“The 39 Steps” opened on Broadway January 15, 2008 at the American Airlines Theatre 227 West 42nd Street just of Broadway. Tickets are available by phone 212-719-1300, online at HYPERLINK "http://www.roundabouttheatre.org" www.roundabouttheatre.org or at the box office.