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BWW Reviews: Clever 39 STEPS Returns to New York


After transferring from London in 2008 and spending the better part of two years on Broadway, Patrick Barlow's humorous adaptation of The 39 Steps was among the first Broadway hits to transfer Off-Broadway and enjoy an extended run in a smaller house.

Robert Petkoff, Arnie Burton, Billy Carter
and Brittany Vicars (Photo: Joan Marcus)

Director Maria Aitken's clever and charming production is back Off-Broadway, and aside from casting, the only noticeable change is that the title has been shortened to 39 Steps.

This is one of those intentionally under-cast, under-budgeted comedies where the fun is seeing how quickly the actors can switch from one character to another, how cleverly the designers can whip up costumes and set pieces out of spare parts and how many quick spoofs and comic references can be crammed into a script. It's the kind of formulaic chaos that has to be done with crackerjack professionalism in order to look so insanely slapped together.

Playing straight for the evening is Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 spy thriller of the same name, based on the novel by John Buchan. The cast of four plays 150 roles with the utmost conviction and seriousness.

It all begins when the dashing Canadian Richard Hannay (heroic and handsome Robert Petkoff), bored with life in London, decides to shake things up by doing, "something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless." His conclusion is obvious: "I'll go to the theater!"

Brittany Vicars and Robert Petkoff with (Back) Arnie Burton
and Billy Carter (Photo: Joan Marcus)

But when shots are fired as he's relaxing in his box at the music hall, Hannay suddenly finds his arms filled with secret agent Annabella Schmidt (a thickly accented Brittany Vicars, later appearing as the classy blonde who thinks he's a murderer), who is on the run from men who know she has knowledge of military secrets, which sets off a complicated plot involving murder, spies, bi-planes, the Loch Ness Monster, romance, adventure, a man with the world's greatest memory, and, of course, what the devil 39 Steps is supposed to mean. It's the old "innocent man on the run" routine with numerous visual and verbal quotes from the Hitchcock catalog and even an appearance by the director himself.

Arnie Burton and Billy Carter complete the foursome and take on the bulk of the multi-casting, with set and costume designer Peter McKintosh providing inventive means for them to not only play several roles at the same time, but to even have them effectively take turns playing the same character in one scene.

The cast is aces and the production is still full of funny delights, but while certainly an enjoyable diversion (particularly if you're in the market for good, clean fun), 39 Steps never builds to any real comic climax and, though never dull, generally remains on the same lightly amusing level. As foreshadowed in its opening scene, "something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless."

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