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The 39 Steps

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Arnie Burton, Billy Carter, Brittany Vicars, and Robert Petkoff.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Can you blame Richard Hannay for looking exhausted? He's been running a bloody long time, after all, with investigators hot on his trail every step of the way. Still, for Richard and his compatriots at the center of The 39 Steps, it's fatigue, not the authorities, that's their greatest enemy. And judging by the new production of the show at the Union Square Theatre, it's finally caught up with them.

Granted, transforming Alfred Hitchcock's serious-minded 1935 chase film into a stage comedy that derives its laughs from four cast members playing dozens of characters and summoning almost as many distinct U.K. locales using just basic backstage props was always an iffy, head-scratching prospect. If you were in the mood for its uniquely music-hall style of humor, and little in the way of the classical plotting or characterization associated with Hitchcock, you could have a good time with it. Adapter Patrick Barlow and director Maria Aitken (operating from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon) did their required work well, but because they never linked the presentation style to the material, if you cared or thought too much about what was going on (as, admittedly, I traditionally have), you were going to be less amused. That problem has yet to go away.

In any event, this spin on the story of Richard, who flees after being accused of a murder he didn't commit and stumbles onto a massive conspiracy in an attempt to prove himself, has always been unusually reliant on the energy of its performers and audience. Because the quartet of actors is forever reconfiguring the ladders, trunks, window frames, and individual elements that comprise Peter McKintosh's sets and costumes (the lights, an equal co-conspirator, are by Kevin Adams), if the performers don't completely buy into what they're doing—or can't convince you to buy into it—the desperation becomes deadly. And though I preferred the more compact and fanciful 2010 New World Stages mounting to the 2008 Broadway one, even then it was becoming clear just how fine the line between success and failure is with this show.

The actors in this incarnation are simultaneously trying too hard and not trying hard enough. Robert Petkoff (Fiddler on the Roof, Ragtime) seems to be applying rigorous Method logic to Richard, trying to explain psychologically someone who exists only to act as a fulcrum for all manner of craziness. Though Richard laments his boredom with life and his failure with women, dwelling on those qualities, as Petkoff does, weighs down the man too much; he needs to be a dashing, nimble symbol of pre-WWII British resilience, pencil-thin mustache, tan suit, and all, not a Kafkaesque failure at the game of life determined to turn his lot around.

That stuff is fine, of course, but selling the jokes from the perspective of the stuffed-shirt Richard, who becomes something of an action hero (dodging crop dusters, leaping about on trains, escaping handcuffs, masquerading as a politician, and so on), is infinitely more important, and Petkoff just doesn't get there. Nor does Brittany Vicars, who plays all the women in the story, from Eastern-European spies to simple farm women and sophisticated associates who fall under Richard's thrall; there's no spark of the bombshell femme fatale about her, which makes the character (as constituted here) fairly pointless.

Arnie Burton (an original 2008 cast member) and Billy Carter, as the two clowns who fill out the other roles and create most of the coordinating illusions, fare better because their field of influence is simpler. They need to embody vivid characters with a distinctive facial expression and a key costume piece or two (typically swapped out—and, on occasion, back in again—at lightning speed) and then move on to the next. If neither actor seems quite as precisely broad as is ideal, they come closest to capturing the perpetual-motion spirit that is, and has always been, the enterprise's sole reason to exist.

With the exception of a few tiny tweaks to the script (one Barack Obama reference deleted here, another Downtown Abbey nod added in there), this is in every other way The 39 Steps as it's been for the last seven years—clever (sometimes to a fault), theatrical, not especially Hitchcock—just more in need of a fresh set of batteries and perhaps a good kick in the rump. If this isn't ever going to be everyone's cup of tea, it would still benefit from going heavier on the caffeine and a little (or a lot) lighter on the milk and sugar.

The 39 Steps
Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street between Park Avenue and Irving Place
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ticketmaster

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