The 39 Steps
The London and New York hit (the Broadway version is, for the moment, the only legit play running on the Great White Way) is setting off on a national tour. But prior to doing so the tour company is mounting try-out productions at the La Jolla Playhouse (through September 13) and the Seattle Rep (September 25 – October 18).
Patrick Barlow has taken John Buchan's 1915 novel and Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon's original concept and fashioned an imaginative stage rendition that suggests the famed visual imagery of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film. Mr. Barlow has his fun with the stock conventions of Hitchcock's espionage thrillers (such as The Man Who Knew Too Much and North By Northwest) while still paying loving homage to Hitchcock's art.
The plot more or less follows that of the film, inserting jokes and "insider" references as it goes. Richard Hannay attends a British Music Hall performance one evening. During the performance of a man who has committed a great deal of trivia to memory, shots ring out. Hannay sees Annabella Schmidt fire the shots and stops her after as the performance ends in chaos. Schmidt tells Hannay that she is being followed and seeks refuge in his flat. There, she confides that a group of people has stolen information that is vital to the security of Great Britain. She does not know much about this group, but she does know that the plot originated at a location in Hannay's native Scotland, that the mastermind of this group has lost the tip of his little finger, and that the group has referenced something called The 39 Steps. Hannay lets Schmidt stay the night, but in the morning he finds her stabbed to death with a butter knife from his kitchen. Realizing that he will be charged with Schmidt's murder, Hannay goes on the lam and heads for Scotland.
On the train, Hannay stumbles into a compartment while being pursued, grabs its occupant, a woman named Pamela, and begins to kiss her fervently. The police, seeing the scene, avoid the car, but Pamela is aghast at Hannay's behavior (or at least she pretends to be). She alerts the authorities, and the resulting chase moves from the interior of the railroad cars to the train's roof. Hannay manages to jump onto a bridge and winds up taking refuge at a farm. Moving on from there after recovering from his ordeal, Hannay journeys to the place Annabella Schmidt described to him. There, he meets Professor Jordan and discovers that he is missing the tip of his little finger. Escaping death once again, Hannay winds up being mistaken for an introductory speaker at a political rally. As he attempts to fake his way out of the situation by providing a generic endorsement speech, Pamela, who is in the audience, recognizes him. But, the two are captured by agents of Professor Jordan, disguised as police officers. Escaping from the agents, Hannay and Pamela head back to the Music Hall where the story began, and find that Mr. Memory, the performer Hannay saw earlier, holds the key to solving the puzzle.
Some of these proceedings are fairly silly (even without the jokes), and it does help to be familiar with the Hitchcock film (as well as other Hitchcock films). But it's not essential, and a willing suspension of disbelief will go a long way to promoting one's enjoyment of the evening.
What makes this re-creation tick, though, is not only Mr. Barlow's humorous (though occasionally arch) adaptation and Director Maria Aitken's fast-paced and creative production, but the fact that all of the characters are played by only four actors. Ted Deasy plays Hannay as a detached and reluctant hero who nevertheless gets caught up in what he is doing once the chase begins. Claire Brownell comes to this production directly from the Broadway version, and she inhabits, through costume and wig changes, the various "strong woman in distress" roles. But it is Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson, playing all of the other characters, who function as the show's engine. Slipping easily from one role to the next (and sometimes back again), these two performers give bravura acting a new identity.
And the scenes slip easily from one to another as well (credit Peter McKintosh's sets and costumes, Kevin Adams' lighting and Mic Pool's sound, which drive the imagination to create spectacular images out of mere suggestions). Credit, too, Ms. Aitken's inventive direction and Toby Sedgwick and Christopher Bayes' clever movement coaching, which create highly choreographed segments that suggest moving trains, raging wind, and crowd scenes with only four people on stage.
The show is already in great shape and the La Jolla run will probably only result in slight improvements to timing and technical coordination. It looks as though The 39 Steps will move from Broadway to the hinterlands complete with tongue planted firmly in cheek.
La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Repertory Theatre present The 39 Steps. Performances Tuesday through Sunday through September 13, 2009, at the Mandell Weiss Theatre on the La Jolla Playhouse campus. Tickets ($30-$65) are available by calling the box office at (858) 550-1010, or by visiting LaJollaPlayhouse.org. Adapted by Patrick Barlow from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, and based on the book by John Buchan. Directed by Maria Aitken, with set and costume design by Peter McIntosh, lighting design by Kevin Adams, and sound design by Mic Pool. Featuring Claire Brownell (Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret), Ted Deasy (Richard Hannay), Eric Hissom (Man #1), and Scott Parkinson (Man #2).
Photo: Craig Schwartz