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The 39 Steps

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

John Behlmann, Cameron Folmar, Jamie Jackson, and Kate MacCluggage.
Photo by Carol Rosegg.

The most that's changed about The 39 Steps in the last two years is its theater. It opened January 2008 at the American Airlines, part of the Roundabout season, then moved to the smaller Cort and then the tinier-still Helen Hayes, which it finally vacated this past January. Now, that it's followed Avenue Q's lead and reopened at New World Stages, Richard Hannay is still on the run, he's still having a lot of bad luck with women, and the two guys chasing him spend a lot of time (and calories) changing costumes. One suspects that none of this will change anytime soon.

For those who've long loved Patrick Barlow's boisterously irreverent take on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film (and John Buchan's source novel, but less so), which recreates a dizzying range of locales and characters with only four actors and a whole lot of low-cost stagecraft (devised by director Maria Aitkin, aided and abetted by set and costume designer Peter McKintosh, lighting designer Kevin Adams, and Mic Pool for sound design), this is of course good news. But even the detractors may want to give the show another go - of the three of the show's incarnations I've seen (I missed it at the Helen Hayes), this is its strongest yet.

I don't say this lightly, by the way. I wasn't impressed with the show originally, thinking it more a poor excuse for jokiness at the expense of a serious art object than its own compelling creation. I warmed up to a bit at the Cort when it had been running long enough to shed some of its sense of entitled occasion. But I still questioned (as I do yet) the dramatic value of presenting Richard's adventure by automobile, foot, and plane around the U.K., dodging a bum rap for murder and trying to unlock the secrets of a sinister government conspiracy, as if it were a Saturday Night Live skit about a college theatre department's threadbare improv group.

Well, you know what real-estate agents always say: location, location, location. Removed from the storied confines of a carefully constructed theater and snuggled instead in New World Stages's institutional environs, The 39 Steps presents itself much more readily as a comic extravaganza. The set's false back wall of bricks and ladders and even falser proscenium, which on Broadway attempted to convey the outside world continuing on into the play's (exactly the wrong approach), now function as a barrier between our dreary reality and the snazziness of go-for-broke for show-biz that the show celebrates.

This makes the evening not only much easier to absorb, but also more clearly a British music-hall outing that should be sipped as gingerly as Earl Grey at teatime. When the actors deploy every tool in their considerable storytelling arsenal - an elaborate shadow-puppet sequence charts Richard's pursuit by crop dusters, people hold up window frames and transform into clefts and other obstacles on the cliffy countryside, intentionally "missed" cues ramp up as the caffeination mounts - it has the properly esteemed air of predictable unpredictability, rather than just desperation at the difficulties of making a full-size show of a Fringe Festival idea.

Given all the show has gained, it's a shame to have to report that it's lost something as well. The cast members are a bit more low-key than the material demands, and have trouble tapping into the hysterical zaniness needed to make so many of the jokes (especially in the second act) work. John Behlmann (as Richard), Kate MacCluggage (as all his women), and Cameron Folmar and Jamie Jackson (as everyone else in the world) are all technically proficient at landing the lines and jokes. But they could all do with more force behind their deliveries - maybe they don't need as much as they would to punt the puns to a Broadway theater's rear mezzanine, but a bit more wouldn't hurt.

Correctly balancing the size of the show and the size of the performances can't be easy, and one imagines that these actors - and the decades of replacements who will no doubt be needed - will eventually discover the proper formula. Now that the show has finally landed where it's always belonged, it's matter of when - not if - that will happen. And once it does, don't be surprised if The 39 Steps remains a Top 40–style hit, running as eternally as Richard - and to even more hilarious effect.

The 39 Steps
Running Time: 1 hour 48 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
New World Stages / Stage 1, 340 West 50th Street Between 8th and 9th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Telecharge

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