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 >