If the thought of murder, Nazis and the risk of losing government secrets to foreign agents doesn’t have you rolling in the aisles, then you probably haven’t ascended The 39 Steps. This latest production from TheatreWorks mixes espionage, Alfred Hitchcock and vaudeville in a hilarious caricature of over-the-top spy stories.
The play’s source material is John Buchan’s novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, written in 1915, but Patrick Barlow’s stage version follows Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation in characters, dialogue and plot.
Richard Hannay (Mark Anderson Phillips), a bored London gentleman, unwelcomingly finds adventure in a mysterious German woman who draws him into a deadly chase across Europe when she reveals that foreign agents are attempting to smuggle state secrets out of the country. Hannay largely acts as the straight man to scores of characters played by three other actors: Rebecca Dines, Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown. The constant onstage costume and character changes alter between blatantly obvious and completely hidden, both providing some of the funniest bits in the show.
Costumes aren’t the only thing the production creatively uses. The set and props are also quite effective. At one point, Hannay jumps from a bridge (a ladder) and, with the help of creative lighting, appears to plummet to the water below. Other props are intentionally unrealistic, such as Hiatt and Brown gently shaking a blue sheet to represent the water around Pamela’s (Dines) feet. The jokes are as old as vaudeville. However, the cast delivers everything so perfectly that the payoff is always worth it. Though it is an homage to the Master of Suspense (using film titles and scores and one of the director’s famous cameos), the show thrives on breaking the fourth wall and stepping outside of the material to ham it up with tongue planted firmly in cheek. In a fast-paced chase scene on a train, Hiatt and Brown play six characters and steal the show by bringing together with perfect timing all of the elements that make the show wonderful: physical comedy, pantomime to fill out a sparse set, machine-gun dialogue and actors playing multiple roles.
The second act wants to tone down the humor and falls back on the suspenseful plot. The performance is a comedy but the plot is still a thriller, and only one can be the driving force behind the production. When comedy is in control, The 39 Steps is near flawless, but when drama dominates, no one’s smiling. Luckily, Phillips anchors the second half with passionate acting and carries the plot between laughs. As a film, The 39 Steps is one of Hitchcock’s less popular works, but in this production, no matter which way you turn, it leads to a comical farce worthy of popular praise.