Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - January 15, 2008
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps Adapted by Patrick Barlow. Based on an original concept by Simon Corble & Nobby Dimon. Based on the book by John Buchan. Directed by Maria Aitken. Set & costume design by Peter McKintosh. Lighting design by Kevin Adams. Sound design by Mic Pool. Dialect coach Stephen Gabis. Original movement created by Toby Sedgwick. Additional movement created by Christopher Bayes. Cast: Arnie Burton, Charles Edwards, Jennifer Ferrin, Cliff Saunders.
Okay, not really. But though The 39 Steps is in reality a production of Boston's Huntington Theatre Company being presented by New York's Roundabout Theatre Company, it bears far more resemblance to those disposable larks occupying tiny downtown venues in August than to serious drama. Or, for that matter, serious comedy. This is spoof, spoof, spoof, all the way and in every direction, from under Capricorn to north by northwest.
That, by the way, is a sample of the wit demonstrated by Patrick Barlow's adaptation of the classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film. (Which, for the record, wasn't a comedy.) References abound to other Hitchcock ventures, such as Psycho, Rear Window, and The Man Who Knew Too Much, pushing for guffaws of recognition much as many jukebox musicals goad onlookers into applauding pop standards the instant their opening vamps are heard.
No doubt when the show first premiered in London, or when this production first bowed in Boston, audiences were able to detect a whimsical freshness about the creation of an expansive chase film onstage using the kinds of low-rent theatrical magic that's kept The Fantasticks consistently charming for 45 years. For New York audiences unacquainted with the stylistic conceit of a tiny group of actors creating something by any account too big for them, my suspicion - without a shadow of a doubt - is that The 39 Steps will leave them spellbound. (A colleague rightly pointed out that many Roundabout subscribers fall squarely within this category.)
That show at least has the benefit of being based on a source universally acknowledged as awful, giving it additional freedom to make something from what, on celluloid, is a very tuneful nothing. But Hitchcock's 39 Steps suffers from no such detriment. If the murky movie nailbiter, which was based on John Buchan's book, occasionally veers closer than it should toward melodramatic suspense, it's a decent yarn that has no trouble engaging you through fast-paced scenes of suspicion, intrigue, and action. There's no inherent reason that a faithful stage version couldn't respectfully and intelligently capture these qualities and make the theatrical experience more electrifying than the cinematic one.
Electrifying, however, is not what Barlow and director Maria Aitken are aiming for. They just want to wring laughs from a mostly humor-free property, which leaves the evening laboring under a curiously dark cloud of disconnection. The basics of the story do come through: Richard Hannay (Edwards) finds his life going downhill after he's charged with the murder of a German secret agent (Ferrin) he was temporarily putting up in his apartment, and his run from the law and the secret society chasing him teaches more than he ever wanted to know about the dangers of the British underworld. You don't need to have seen the movie to follow the action (which is admittedly a plus over at Xanadu).
Unfortunately, in making so much of the art of stage storytelling, complete with the preternatural minimalism of Peter McKintosh's sets (look, a ladder!), Barlow and Aitken have rendered the story itself superfluous. Knockabout clowns Saunders and Burton play dozens of different roles, often of dubious dramatic necessity; in one instance, they spend two minutes trading hats, flipping personalities like an obsessive compulsive in a room of light switches, and conversing at warp speed about matters utterly inconsequential to the plot. The first-act curtain literally closes on Edwards, who must be dragged from underneath it. Romps about the countryside are depicted with a series of shadow puppets for that choicest of reasons: just because.
Is this all funny? I laughed exactly once, during one of those shadow puppet outings. You might fare better if you're not an Off-Off-Broadway or Fringe Festival veteran. For those who've been around this parodic block any number of summers, this derivative treatment might leave you mentally scrambling for a lifeboat.
The closest things to surprises are McKintosh's well-heeled sets and costumes, and Kevin Adams's lights, all of which are less chaotic than you typically find at the Fringe. The large playing area allows for more expansive scenes than you're apt to see in a theater in which you must traverse the stage to reach your seat. And the performers are models of energetic excellence, if never appreciably better than those you see in top-tier Fringe outings.
But lacking a ripe comedic target, they're unable to sell The 39 Steps as anything other than an elaborate time-waster that has nothing on its mind, even within the limited realm of frivolous entertainment in which it so shamelessly operates. No, not every play must say something. But must one with so much potential for originality say nothing with such dizzyingly familiar force?