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Review: Summer Audiences Can Chill Out With Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS at the Alley Theatre

Review: Summer Audiences Can Chill Out  With Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS at the Alley Theatre

It's that time of year again, the Dog Days of summer in Houston, and the livin' is not all that easy. The biggest decision most of us make these days is how far exactly we're willing to go from the car to the next air conditioned space, and for me, that's not far.

I did, however, venture from the second floor of the parking garage to the lobby of the Alley Theatre the other night in search of cool entertainment, and I was not disappointed.

Those of us who labor in the world of theatre, with an "re", sometimes forget that the original purpose of theater, however you spell it, was entertainment. When the first caveman dropped a rock on another caveman's foot and a third caveman laughed, we were hooked. Since then, we have evolved, as it were, from Aeschylus to Shakespeare to Moliere to Mamet, and the theater has grown up somewhat, but entertainment can still be said to be its primary function.

And entertainment is what you'll get with this Summer Chills production of The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the Hitchcock classic of the same title, filmed in England in 1935.

The Hitchcock film is deadly serious, even at its most over-the-top moments, but Barlow plays it for laughs from the start. And he gets them.

The plot of the film, in short, is the story of a man in London who goes to the theater and becomes involved with a beautiful female spy who comes to his flat and is murdered, gasping clues to a spy operation as she breathes her last. The hapless protagonist is more or less framed for her murder. The only way he can prove his innocence is to flee the scene in search of the answer to the clues, which he does, ending up in the wilds of Scotland, where misadventures ensue, with chases by detectives and falling in love with a beautiful blonde on a train.

Hitchcock fans will recognize plot points that Hitchcock will repeat again and again in his subsequent movies, but they never seem to become stale.

Barlow keeps pretty close to this plot, but with hilarious results.

To begin with, the entire thing is played by four - count 'em, four - actors. The PR says somewhere that together they play 100 characters. I tried to keep up, but I lost count early. I'll take their word for it.

The hero, Richard Hannay (Todd Waite) keeps to one identity, except for several rather unsuccessful disguises and name changes, but the others morph with dizzying speed as the story progresses.

Elizabeth Bunch plays Pamela, the heroine, Annabella, the spy, and Margaret, a Scottish farmer's wife, smitten with Hannay.

Bruce Warren (Man #1) and Mark Price (Man #2) play everyone else. Everyone else.

From here on in, it's pure farce.

The changes and accents are a tightrope act without a net, and watching them is pure pleasure. Will they make it? Yes, they will. They almost didn't. But they did.

I won't try to identify all the characters. Your faithful correspondent doesn't take notes, and if he did, I don't think he could have kept up.

Suffice it to say that Warren and Price are a tour de force, fearless in their performances, which include several in drag that kill. That, and their virtuoso handling of outrageous props, are nothing short of amazing.

Elizabeth Bunch goes full tilt as the sultry spy Annabella, slinking across the floor with abandon. Somehow she manages to slink even when she is standing still. With her almost impenetrable CHerman accent, complete with the Dietrich lisp, she is the epitome of the 30s woman gone bad.

But as the ingénue Pamela, she is girlish and coy, especially during romantic encounters with the hero. Her outrage is palpable, and the will-they-won't-they exchanges are both predictable and funny.

As the hero, Hannay, Todd Waite has the stiff-upper-lip, earnest but somewhat bewildered character that fits him like a glove. There is a scene where he inadvertently wanders into a political rally and is expected to make a speech. His deadpan and panicked delivery is something to see.

Mark Shanahan directs this piece with the precision and sense of humor without which it would be impossible. I hope he enjoyed it; otherwise I would expect him to be taking a much-needed rest at Happy Acres. He may need that anyway.

And speaking of Happy Acres, the backstage crew, especially the dressers, should get combat pay. I would buy a ticket just to see what went on back there.

Having at least a brief acquaintance with the Hitchcock genre helps; Hitchcockian references are frequently, and shamelessly, tossed around, but it's not strictly necessary.

The play is a delight, what used to be called a "romp". I don't even regret the time subtracted from my life getting from the car to the theater.

I really don't.

Alfred Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS continues through September 3, 2017. 615 Texas Ave. For information, please call 713.220.5700 or visit

From This Author - Gary Laird