BWW Review: THE 39 STEPS: Playing Hitchcock For Laughs
The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan, from the movie by Alfred Hitchcock; Directed by Robert Walsh; Scenic Design, Jenna McFarlen Lord; Lighting Design, Russ Swift; Costume Design, Miranda Kau Giurleo; Sound Design, David Wilson; Props Design, Emme Shaw; Stage Manager, Marsha Smith; Dialect Coach, Elizabeth Ingram
Performances through July 28 at Gloucester Stage Company, 267 East Main Street, Gloucester, MA; Box Office 978-281-4433 or www.gloucesterstage.com
If there's one thing that summer theater should be, it's fun, and Gloucester Stage Company's production of The 39 Steps happily fulfills the requirement. Actually, it is more than fun - it is laugh out loud funny, thanks to the witty script, the crisp direction by Artistic Director Robert Walsh, and the antics and split-second comic timing of a quartet of actors who play over 150 characters without going off the rails. Joining them on stage is Malachi Rosen, a Foley Artist who produces a litany of sound effects, allowing the audience to see and hear how every door slam, train whistle, and gun shot happens. The 1935 film was a classic Alfred Hitchcock thriller, but the stage adaptation by Patrick Barlow heaps large helpings of farce and satire atop the story, while maintaining a high level of suspense.
As the audience files in, the stage is empty, but for a traditional ghost light, giving the impression that this will be a bare bones production. However, numerous set pieces and furnishings are rolled on and off as needed, such as a stand alone door, a window frame, and an overstuffed chair to serve as the flat of our protagonist, Richard Hannay (Lewis D. Wheeler), he of the pencil-thin mustache and a stiff upper lip. Hannay woefully laments his boredom and humdrum existence, until he lights upon the idea to take in a show in the West End. While watching the performance of Mr. Memory (Gabriel Kuttner) and his Master of Ceremonies (Paul Melendy), a mysterious woman (Amanda Collins) joins him in his theatre box. In the midst of the program, she fires a gun in the air and runs off with Hannay following. He takes her home with him where he learns her name (Annabella Schmidt), listens to her incredible story of being pursued by secret agents, and, before morning, finds her on his lap with a knife buried in her back. Armed with nothing more than a map and the mystery of the 39 Steps, Hannay sets off on an adventure of murder, espionage, and romance.
Barlow's adaptation includes all of the famous scenes from the movie, and Walsh and his design team find imaginative and creative ways to suggest the action and the locales. Traveling on the Flying Scotsman, the passengers bounce up and down on steamer trunks; a pair of ladders are the frame of the Forth Bridge and Hannay dangles precariously from an extension stretched between them; a miniature bi-plane looms large when backlighting casts its silhouette on a sheet; and a raucous dance party features silhouetted figures kicking it up behind the same sheet. However, the heavy lifting is done by the cast, especially Kuttner and Melendy, as they speed seamlessly from one character to another, changing their hats, posture, and accent in rat-a-tat motion where the next laugh starts before the last one has ended.
Wheeler strikes me as primarily a serious actor; case in point, his last role at Gloucester Stage was Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. However, he appears to relish the opportunity to play farce and, one wonders how, manages to keep a straight face in the face of the over the top silliness going on around him. As the leading man, he emits a level of gravitas, but his tongue is planted firmly in his cheek. Although her first character dies early on, Collins delights in two more roles and shows her versatility. In contrast to Annabella, the heavily-accented femme fatale, Margaret is a shy, pretty farmer's wife who catches Hannay's eye, and Pamela is a fellow passenger on the train who alerts the police to Hannay's presence. Numerous other female characters are played by Kuttner and Melendy, often with only the benefit of a wig, an apron, or a scullery cap to differentiate them.
Listed as Clowns in the program, dour Kuttner is Emmett Kelly to rubbery Melendy's Carol Burnett, and the combination is magical. Occasionally, they get to portray the same mood, and my favorite example is when they dance the Charleston side by side with abandon at the end of the first act. Sometimes it looks like they're having a private competition to see who can die better (and stretch it out), or who can sustain a stare longer, or which of them might get one of the others to crack up, but it never happens. Meanwhile, the audience rarely stops laughing, especially when the two clowns are part of the action.
Walsh does a masterful job of running the show at breakneck speed, a vital component of what makes it all work. There are a couple of short stretches where it lags, but that seems to be a function of the two-hour length and the responsibility of the playwright. The designers (Jenna McFarlen Lord, scenic; Russ Swift, lighting; Miranda Kau Giurleo, costume; David Wilson, sound; and Emme Shaw, props) add to the fun and the authenticity. I almost forgot to mention that there are references to other Hitchcock films scattered throughout, as well as pieces of musical themes (I specifically recognized "Vertigo") to test your knowledge and attention. Don't worry if you don't catch them. You'll probably be too busy laughing at The 39 Steps.