Frantic ‘The 39 Steps’ turns Hitchcock’s classic into an over-eager romp

The hard-working cast of “The 39 Steps

Murder! Mystery! Action! Romance! Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 classic The 39 Steps has it all. (Bonus: you can watch the entire film on hulu here.) The story follows the dashing Richard Hannay who crosses paths with a mysterious women, suddenly finding himself tied up in a web of intrigue and deception. Soon, Hannay is on the lam with the police hot on his trail, encountering a series of romances and close-encounters along the way.

Patrick Barlow has adapted this wonderfully vintage fugitive film for the stage as an endearing comedic romp, heavily reliant on the efforts of a hard-working four person cast. With Ted Deasy as our square-jawed hero and Claire Brownell as all the women he encounters while on the run, the other two actors, Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson, take on the hurculean task of playing everyone else. Quick changes, silly accents, men in dresses, pratfalls — it’s all here. And director Maria Aitken stages it with minimal, simple scenery — a door frame here, a chair there — keeping the amateurish theatricality of the thing front-and-center.

A hit in New York and the West End, I highly anticipated this tour. I love a good, slap-sticky parody as much as the next guy. However, something about the over-eagerness to please combined with broad, shallow performances multiplied by the size of the Bank of America Theatre made it all seem like, well, a bit of a chore.

I think I laughed out loud three times.

The problem is the gimmick rubs off pretty quickly, and the second act sags terribly. There’s no reason why this lighthearted fare couldn’t be done in one act. Furthermore, and most importantly, the actors need to step away from the mechanics of the piece and find the joy. The comedy is so precisely played out, it’s become mechanical. The marks are hit but the inspiration is gone.

That’s not to say it isn’t amusing — like I said, these actors are working overtime to entertain, and their efforts don’t go unrecognized. But the overall effect leaves you empty and exhausted. At least it did me and my theatre companion. But people around me were laughing with regularity, so what the hell do I know?

“The 39 Steps” plays through May 30 at the Bank of America Theatre. More information here >

7 thoughts on “Frantic ‘The 39 Steps’ turns Hitchcock’s classic into an over-eager romp

  1. That’s really a shame. I saw it in London and had a great time, but it was a smaller space, which helped. I feel like touring a show this tonally delicate in barns like the Bank of America could broaden and flatten it to the point where it lost its effectiveness. I feel like this is the kind of show that would have been better served by an extended run in one of the smaller theatres–maybe the Royal George or Athenaeum, as they have the atmosphere for it. Ah well, maybe some day.

    And to be the spelling stickler–when referring to people running from the law, the phrase is “on the lam,” without a b. Apparently that’s slang that’s been around for at least 100 years, maybe much longer.

    1. BAAAAH! Thanks for the spelling correction! :) Noted and changed.

      Reading the other reviews posted today, seems I wasn’t alone on thinking something was off in this tour.

  2. While I really enjoyed the show, I do have to chime in and say that it seems positively dwarfed by the Bank of America Theatre. Frankly, when the show began last night, I had to strain to hear Hannay’s opening lines (no fault of the actors, being that he was wearing a mic.) But yeah – delightful show, WRONG venue.

    1. Didn’t mean to put words in your mouth regarding how you felt after the show, Jamie. Maybe you were just worn out from the day — and not the production? I know we were both a bit bleary-eyed when we left the LaSalle Bank of America Shubert Theatre.

  3. That wasn’t me you heard laughing BEHIND you! The show did make me smile in amusement AND post show I had quite a few chuckles talking theatre shop with an addict!

  4. […] Improbable Frequency, an unapologetically zany musical comedy by Arthur Riordan (book and lyrics) and Bell Helicopter (music), explores this historical footnote with dizzying wordplay and a highly improbable storyline involving a secret society of spies, a mad scientist and a barrage of wordy English music hall patter songs. Think of it as Monty Python meets Gilbert and Sulliven mixed with a huge dose of The 39 Steps. […]

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