BWW Reviews: THE 39 STEPS a Twisted Path to Mindless Fun

At the beginning of Otterbein University's production of THE 39 STEPS, Richard Hannay is desperate for a diversion from the dullness of his life in London. "I wanted to do something mindless and trivial, so I went to the theater," says Hannay, the central character in the Christina Kirk directed production.

It's a perfect introduction for what is to follow: a show that is equal parts farce, film noir and romantic comedy. The cocktail is swirled into a night that mindless, yet entertaining fun.

Hannay (played by Sam Ray) finds his mundane existence is turned upside down when his choice of productions to see on London's West End is "Mr. Memory," a man with a photographic memory. At the theater, he is seated by femme fatale Annabella Schmidt (Emily Vanni), a secret agent who convinces Hannay that she is being followed and pleads with him to take her back to his apartment.

After he discovers Schmidt has been killed that night and he is being framed for the murder, Hannay goes on the run. Ray shines as Hannay, who transforms from a nebbish flat dweller to a savvy fugitive as he eludes the police as well as the same agents who have eliminated Schmidt.

Hannay manages to fall in love two more times, with Margaret, a married Scottish lass and with Pamela, who is convinced he is a murderer on the run. All three of the women are played by Vanni, who seamlessly transforms into each character's mannerisms and accents while maintaining a romantic chemistry with Ray.

However it is Anthony Cason Jr. and Sean Murphy, who have the biggest acting challenge of the night. Murphy and Cason take on every other role in the show, playing everything from police chiefs, spies, maids, innkeepers, children and sheep, often within a manner of seconds. At one point, Murphy shows up wearing a policeman's cap with a flowing blonde wig underneath it was so he could do an interrogation scene between two of his characters.

What makes the show work are the little touches Kirk has incorporated into it. With such a small cast, the production often "enlists" help from its audience to bring the show to life. Spectators are encouraged to ask "Mr. Memory" questions or hold on to props throughout the show.

The play, which was adapted by Patrick Barlow from a 1915 novel by John Buchan and a 1935 movie by Alfred Hitchcock, also has several Hitchcockisms sprinkled throughout the play, making references to REAR WINDOW, NORTH BY NORTHWEST and STRANGERS ON A TRAIN. It used a large projection screen to reenact the famous airplane scene from NORTH BY NORTHWEST. My personal favorite was the slipping in of a portrait of Hitchcock being slipped in among a collection of family portraits in a mansion.

The end result of THE 39 STEPS was something like toned down versions of David and Abraham Zucker's movies AIRPLANE! and TOP SECRET! which walked a tightrope of slapstick, farce and parody.

While it may have started as a "mindless" night of theater, the performances made THE 39 STEPS a comic tour de force.

THE 39 STEPS will hold performances at 8 p.m. June 27 and June 28 and July 3, 5 and 10-12 at 7:30 p.m. June 26 at Cowan Hall's Fritsche Theatre (30 S. Grove St. in Westerville). Additionally there will be two 2 p.m. matinees on June 27 and June 29.

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From This Author Paul Batterson

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