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Seattle by David-Edward Hughes

The 39 Steps Offers
a Good Evening of Spoofery at Seattle Rep

The 39 Steps
Eric Hissom, Claire Brownell, Scott Parkinson and Ted Deasy
It's hard to say what Alfred Hitchcock the master of suspense would have thought of the Broadway and London smash stage version of his early career film classic The 39 Steps, but smiles and giggles abound at the Seattle Rep mounting of this four-actor version, in a two-city pre-tour set that began at La Jolla Playhouse. The particulars of the film are adhered to in the stage script adapted by Patrick Barlow, based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, based on John Buchan's book. But there is also a fair bit of High Anxiety-style spoofery, with both subtle and obvious nods to much of Hitch's canon from North by Northwest to The Birds.

Directed with style and snappy pacing by Maria Aitken, The 39 Steps follows a favorite Hitchcock theme: an innocent man, made to look guilty by circumstance, must unravel a maelstrom of mystery to clear himself. Canadian Richard Hannay (played with off-handed charm by Ted Deasy) is at the theatre, watching a demonstration of the fabulous powers of recall of "Mr. Memory" when shots are fired. In the ensuing panic, frightened fellow attendee Annabella talks Hannay into taking her back to his flat, and there she admits to being a counterspy who fired the shots to cause confusion because she is being chased by assassins. She reveals knowledge of a plot to steal vital British military secrets, masterminded by a man missing a top joint from his little finger. To stop the plot, she needs to go to Scotland to a house in a small village. She mentions "thirty-nine steps," but does not explain their meaning. That night, Annabella is stabbed in the back with Hannay's knife, but manages to warn him to flee before she dies, clutching in her hand a map of Scotland with a tiny village circled. He sneaks out of the watched flat and soon boards a train to Scotland. On board, police are searching the train, and Hannay learns from a newspaper that he is the target of a nationwide manhunt as a murder suspect. To throw police off his track, he enters a compartment and kisses a stranger, Pamela, and the searchers skip the compartment. Pamela first becomes Hannay's suspicious adversary, but ultimately his romantic confidante, as his misadventures lead him from a rustic Scottish farmhouse to a society party (hosted by an undercover Nazi spy with a missing fingertip!) to a police station, a political rally and ultimately back to another performance by the ubiquitous Mr. Memory at the London Palladium, and the big reveal of just what The 39 Steps are. To describe more of the plot would spoil the fun, and take several more paragraphs to boot.

Of the four-actor cast, only Deasy plays but one character throughout and, wavering accent aside, he is up to the task. Claire Brownell, the sole female cast member, makes a suitably mysterious Annabella, an unctuous Pamela and an oddly touching farmer's wife named Margaret. Deasy and Brownell get great comic mileage in a scene involving handcuffs, but the show is largely stolen by actors Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson who play ... well, everybody else in the story. From the hissable Nazi to the gloweringly jealous farmer to the just plain odd Mr. Memory, to name but a few, the pair is versatile, agile and tireless in their tomfoolery. Think Monty Python or Conway and Korman sending up a classic film on Carol Burnett. With such slam-bang action going on, one imagines a fair amount of improvisation figures into the show at each performance.

Peter McKintosh's set, far more suggestive than literal, for comedic potential, is simply ideal and gives the cast leeway for uproarious antics with window frames, doors, planes, trains and so on, and his tweedy, seedy costumes are also on the nose. Director Aitken has as much choreographed as directed the show, and there are marvelous moments when the cast captures special effects (like being caught in a gusty wind) with comic body language that is sheer inspiration.

The 39 Steps runs Wednesday-Sunday through October 24, 2009 at Seattle Repertory Theatre's Bagley Wright main-stage, 155 Mercer St. in Seattle Center. For more information, visit the Rep online at www.seattlerep.org or call 206-443-2222. The tour officially launches, with this cast, at the Shubert Theater in New Haven, Connecticut on November 5. For more information, visit www.39stepsonbroadway.com/tour.html.


Photo: Craig Schwartz

See the list of this season's theatre offerings in the Seattle area.



- David Edward Hughes



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