The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps opened September 17, 2010, in the Drury Theatre, The Cleveland Play House. What an opening night! Laughter rocked the theatre and the audience gave the cast a standing ovation at the curtain call.
The 39 Steps has a checkered past. John Buchan wrote the novel, which was published in 1915. Alfred Hitchcock directed the movie 20 years later. The movie is considered by some critics as one of the best British films ever made. Patrick Barlow wrote the script that's now playing in Cleveland as a slap-stick comedy.
The play starts as a music hall production, featuring Mr. Memory, a man who has great mental skills. When shots are fired in the hall, things quickly go from campy to high farce. Annabella Schmidt (Sarah Nealis), who is seated in a balcony with Richard Hannay (Nick Sandys), asks Richard to take her home with him. At his flat she tells him she's being pursued by a man with a missing finger. This man and his colleagues want to kill her. She also wants a drink. That's understandable. The man with the missing finger is part of a spy team determined to bring down the British military.
Before the evening ends, Annabella is dead and Nick has escaped because he knows he will be arrested for her murder. The remainder of the script focuses on Richard's ongoing attempt to escape the thugs who murdered Annabella. During those travels Richard meets interested, sometime dangerous, and always well-acted characters.
The story is acted by four performers playing 140 characters. Nealis plays Annabella, Margaret and Pamela. The other two roles are identified as Clown 1 (Rob Johansen) and Clown 2 (Joe Foust). The clowns play the other characters, including some of the strangest looking females to cross a stage or steal a scene. The four actors are exceptionally challenged by having to play so many different characters. However, they are up to all challenges.
Peter Amster (director) understands comedy and keeps the action moving at a hurried pace. He keeps each of the characters distinct, bright and on key.
Amster and Linda Buchanan (scenic designer) make the set function as a character. For example, when Hannay needs to escape, a window is carried on stage and he crawls through the window and is gone. In other scenes Hannay must hang from a bridge and, later, he is chased by an airplane. The simple yet powerfully functional set exposes the back wall of the theater, with set pieces rolled onto the stage for certain scenes.
Amster pays homage to Hitchcock several times during the production. At one time, a street sign goes by with birds perched on it. Think of The Birds. In another sequence, an airplane attempts to mow down Hannay in the style of North by Northwest. Amster includes other references to Hitchcock. At one point I'm sure I saw five actors on stagewas Amster making a guest appearance as Hitchcock did in his movies?
I saw The 39 Steps in London a few years ago and enjoyed the production. That experience prompted me to read the novel and watch the Hitchcock movie version. By starting with the novel, moving to the film, and then going to the stage production, I understand how one version of the story leads to the next. However, I think the Cleveland Playhouse version has been the most satisfying stage version. This is in part because Amster referenced the movie and the novel.
Unfortunately, this production will only play through October 10. I suspect it could entertain for several months in Cleveland.
For ticket information, telephone 216-795-7000, ext. 4.
The next production in The Cleveland Play House will be The Kite Runner, which opens October 20, 2010. Other shows in the season include This Wonderful Life, Backward in High Heels, The Trip to Bountiful, My Name is Asher Levy, and Legacy of Light.
The Cleveland Playhouse works with Case Western Reserve University's graduate MFA productions. Those productions will be The Orchard (a new version of The Cherry Orchard, which opens October 27, 2010. The second show scheduled in this series is Present Laughter, which opens March 23, 2010.
The Theatre for Children will offer The Little Mermaid, January 25 - 29, 2011.
The Drury Theatre
- David Ritchey