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Regional Reviews: New Jersey

Farcical Adaptation of The 39 Steps Sparkles

Also see Bob's review of Copenhagen

Stacie Morgain Lewis and Howard McGillin
The news about the George Street Playhouse production of The 39 Steps could not be better. The vastly popular stage farce, adapted from the 1915 novel by John Buchan and (scene by scene) from the 1935 British mystery-spy chase adventure movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is being presented in a joyously hilarious production that outshines the smash hit 2008 Roundabout Broadway production. With transfers to the Cort and Helen Hayes Theatres, it attained an amazing run of 771 performances.

Four actors portray dozens upon dozens of roles. The estimable Howard McGillin plays Richard Hannay, and is the only actor to play a single role. The three women with whom Hannay has romantic encounters, Annabella Schmidt, Pamela and Margaret, are played by Stacie Morgain Lewis, and an exceptional team of actors billed as Clown One and Clown Two (Mark Price and Michael Thomas Holmes) play all the other roles, including innumerable policemen and spies, a milkman, a charwoman, lingerie salesmen, train conductors, train passengers (of both sexes), a newspaper seller, radio announcers, a farmer and his wife, husband and wife Scottish hoteliers, children, props (such as a coat rack and an ashtray), and vaudevillians—all in hilarious vaudeville fashion. In some scenes, the comics weave in and out of different roles in rapid succession with changes of hat, and sharp adjustments in characterization.

Richard Hannay is attending a London Music Hall where "Mr. Memory" is demonstrating his mental prowess when shots are fired. Hannay is approached by the German-accented Annabella Schmidt who tells him that she is a secret agent working for the British, and that she is being stalked by two assassins who are part of a spy ring headed by a master enemy spy the top of whose little finger is missing. She adds that she is the only one who can "schtup" them. At her insistence, Hannay brings Annabella back to his flat to spend the night. She makes mention of "the thirty nine steps" and a house that she must visit in Alt-na-Shellach, Scotland. Overnight in his flat, Annabella is knifed in the back and dies. Hannay, the prime suspect in her murder, escapes, and heads off for Scotland to unlock the mystery of "the thirty-nine steps," uncover Annabella's murderer, and prevent Nazi agents from getting secret British documents out of the country. Repeatedly hindering Hannay is the lovely Pamela who recognizes him on the train in which he is fleeing, but refuses to believe his story and twice leads the police to him before they fall in love.

Comic One and Comic Two play their roles both for laughs and to advance the play's plot. However, what most sets The 39 Steps apart from its comedic and satiric forebears is that, at heart, it not only respects Hitchcock's lighthearted melodrama, but it retains the film's spy adventure story's excitement, suspense and charm. This is a supple, very original farce (without doors) in which the comic delight principally arises from the deranged and ingenious employment of imaginative and zany theatrical devices and sleight of hand in letter prefect fashion by cast and director. The terrific scenery, props and costumes are only the beginning as we see Hannay chased across Scotland with more imagination, excitement, and sheer fun than any big budget CGI movie could deliver. Adaptor Patrick Barlow has written what may be a singularly perfectly toned amalgam of fidelity and farcical reinvention.

Several non-essential but delightful side trips are made to several later American Hitchcock films by way of puns, visual images, and the employment of their music. You will most likely be delighted by them.

The execution is flawless. Director Mark Shanahan (who understudied the role of Hannay on Broadway) has previously directed this play at three regional theatres and has done an outstanding job here. The detail and élan of the performances, the split second timing of cast and crew, and precision of the lighting and execution of the shadow puppetry are masterful. However much credit is due to Maria Aitkin, who directed the London and Broadway productions, there is no gainsaying the terrific work that Shanahan has done here.

Howard McGillin brings new delight and vigor to the role of Richard Hannay. There is a sense of bemused detachment in his Hannay which sets up a delightful contrast between that persona and the nervy, energetic desperate lengths that he goes to in order to prove his innocence. He is like a not quite suave John Cleese playing Cary Grant (who usually played Cary Grant) in North by Northwest. Stacie Morgain Lewis is an extremely funny, femme fatale as Annabella and a charmingly daft farmer's young wife. However, Lewis is at her most persuasive as Pamela—as coiffed in the manner that she is for the role, she is a dead ringer for Madeleine Carroll who originated the role in the 1935 film.

As for Mark Price and Michael Thomas Holmes, well, these guys are each terrific in a wide range of comic roles. However, the fun increases exponentially as they riotously play off one another. From the first scene, when the deadpan hilarity of the strange "Mr. Memory" is matched by that of Holmes as his stage partner who gathers questions from the audience, these gentlemen are reminiscent of the classic comedy teams of an earlier era.

Kudos to Movement Director Jen Waldman and Fight Director Rick Sordelet. Ditto to Costume Designer David Murin, Set Designer Yoshi Tanokura, and Lighting Designer Rui Rita. Every hand on deck has made a substantial contribution.

The 39 Steps is the best new English language stage farce in many years. And the George Street production does it full justice.

The 39 Steps continues performances through May 20 (Evenings: Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm/ Sun. 7 pm/ Matinees: Saturday and Sunday 2 pm - except Thursday 5/10 2 pm only) at the George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, N.J. 08901; Box Office: 732-246-7717; Online:

The 39 Steps adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and the film by Alfred Hitchcock and an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon; directed by Mark Shanahan

Richard Hannay…………………………..Howard McGillin
Annabella/ Pamela/ Margaret……Stacie Morgain Lewis
Clown One………………………………………...Mark Price
Clown Two……………………….Michael Thomas Holmes

Photo: T. Charles Erickson

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- Bob Rendell

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