So here’s the pitch:
Take a 1935 Hitchcock mystery-thriller movie, adapt it for the stage and have just four actors play all the parts — with a ton of slapstick, sight gags and a wink-wink, nudge-nudge attitude directed at the audience.
Sound like fun?
Well, it is, for the most part. “The 39 Steps,” adapted by Patrick Barlow from the movie by the same name, is broad comedy, acted out with an over-the-top sensibility.
Its cleverness lies in how to get from one scene to the next quickly, how to work things so actors can change costumes and characters at breakneck speed — sometimes within scenes — and how to indicate with minimal props and scenery the 30-plus scenic changes, all without a pause in the action.
All this was managed by director Susan Clement-Toberer, cast and design crew with skill, if not quite precision yet at a performance last week.
Ben Beck is the only actor to play the same character all night long, Englishman Richard Hannay. During an outing at a London theater to see Mr. Memory, a man with a photographic memory, Richard gets caught up in a spy plot. A German woman tells Richard that Nazis are trying to smuggle state secrets out of the country. When she’s murdered, he becomes a suspect on the run in Scotland.
He and the audience are put through a lot of guessing games about exactly what the 39 Steps are, who the bad guys are and how to stop them. Along the way Richard becomes involved with a young Englishwoman, whom he kidnaps at one point and is handcuffed to at another. She hates him. Or does she?
Kirstin Kluver plays the German woman like a cousin of Natasha from “Rocky & Bullwinkle,” and the Englishwoman like the prissiest priss.
Bill Grennan and Ablan Roblin, playing all the other parts, go completely overboard with thick Scottish brogues or as various characters in drag, police, train conductors, the milkman, Mr. Memory, an assortment of bad guys and so on. It’s an impressive display of character morphing, physical effort and quick thinking.
Beck, with a pencil moustache, doesn’t need to do much more than double takes at all that’s happening around him to keep the audience amused — and he’s pretty skilled at that, with an innately sharp sense of comedic timing.
“The 39 Steps” earned six Tony nominations and was big at the box office back in 2008. I was surprised that the gag — quick character changes, physical schtick — started to feel old by intermission. There weren’t as many big laughs in Act 2.
Everything was grist for the comedy mill, including Lindsay Pape’s quick-change costumes, Carol Wisner’s lighting scheme timed to Martin Magnuson’s sound cues, Amy Reiner’s props that kept things moving as reinvented objects, and some fun shadow-puppet work.
If you’re up for broad and silly, this is your show. Hitchcock movie fans will catch several inside jokes, including Hitch’s penchant for cameo appearances in his own movies. But this will work almost as well if you’ve never seen a Hitchcock film at all.
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