Friday, September 28, 2007
The 39 Steps
I came late to Alfred Hitchcock. The shower scene in "Psycho" sent me running into the bedroom for cover when I was a little kid, and over the years I've only grown more squeamish. But as an adult, I've come to realize that there's scary Hitchcock and suspenseful Hitchcock. Now, after having seen "The 39 Steps" in a pre-Broadway engagement at Boston's Huntington Theatre, I can add another category: hilarious Hitchcock homage.
Four actors play all the roles in the award-winning 90-minute British play. It's a virtually scene-for-scene retelling of the classic 1935 film starring Robert Donat as a man who finds himself caught up in an international spy ring. And the way it's done is absolutely inspired. In fact, it reminds me of another favorite of mine, "Wicked," in the way it reimagines a familiar story. I couldn't believe what was accomplished with a few low-tech special effects, some props and lots and lots of quick costume changes. Imagine a suspense story told in the style of a screwball comedy in which the male and female leads aren't in on the joke.
Charles Edwards, who plays the protagonist, Richard Hannay, is the only holdover from the British cast, and he's superb. Edwards has to be very serious and deadpan, like he doesn't realize there's a comedy going on all around him, like he really has been caught up in the middle of an international spy ring and accused of a crime he didn't commit. He's very suave, dashing, self-assured, not a hair out of place even as he flees for his life across the Scottish Highlands. The perfect 1930s hero. Even a week later, thinking about his escape across the top of a train makes me laugh. And the man sure does a lot with a raised eyebrow!
Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders play all the other male roles. Much of what they're called on to do is very slapsticky, physical humor. They're identified in the program as "clowns," and that's the perfect description. They reminded me of a two-man circus act or a couple of old-time vaudevillians. They wear lots of hats, literally and figuratively! Rounding out the cast, Jennifer Ferrin is great playing three very different parts, although her turn as a secret agent did remind me a little of Natasha from "Rocky and Bullwinkle." But in a good way!
"The 39 Steps" isn't perfect. While the first act moves very quickly, things slow down a bit in the second act, which has two longish scenes, in a hotel and at a political rally. And I don't know whether it's just that I'm getting old or the actors weren't projecting well enough, but I was straining a bit to hear everything from the back of the orchestra. Also, it's difficult to say whether I would have gotten as much out of it if I hadn't seen the movie first. A big part of the fun comes from knowing what's coming next and wondering how they're going to pull it off. And there are some delicious shoutouts to classic Hitchcock movies that you'd miss if you weren't a fan. The great man himself even makes a cameo appearance!
Still, the play stands on its own even if you haven't seen the movie or aren't at all familiar with Hitchcock. I don't think I've laughed so hard, so consistently from beginning to end, at the theater all year. Or at a movie, for that matter. Yeah, maybe at times "The 39 Steps" is a little too self-aware, in an "aren't we clever" kind of way. But you know what, it is clever, and funny and wickedly entertaining.