Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The odds catch up with The 39 Steps

Broadway shows come and go but this one is a little more personal for me than most. The 39 Steps is responsible for my becoming a theatre blogger and it was the subject of my very first Gratuitous Violins post.

So when I heard that the play is closing Jan. 10, I was disappointed. I saw the British import at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company in September 2007, during its pre-Broadway run. And I loved it just as much when I saw it on Broadway in July 2009 at the Helen Hayes Theatre.

But nothing lasts forever on Broadway, except possibly The Phantom of the Opera. And I knew that the nonprofit Second Stage Theatre announced in July 2008 that it was acquiring the Helen Hayes as a venue for contemporary American drama.

Plus, this little play, which began previews in January 2008, beat the odds. It changed theatres twice, transferring from a nonprofit to a commercial run to become the longest-running Broadway play in seven years. That's not bad for a production with no recognizable actors, based on a movie few theatergoers have seen.

In July, I got my ticket at the Times Square TKTS booth and apparently a lot of other people went the discount route, too. The 39 Steps was playing to 60.7 percent capacity last week at the 597-seat Helen Hayes, Broadway's smallest house, with an average ticket price of $64.34.

But I have to give the producers credit for trying different ways to get people into the theatre, including hosting talkbacks, an Alfred Hitchcock lookalike contest, a scavenger hunt based on The Amazing Race and posting clues on Twitter about tickets hidden at various spots in midtown Manhattan.

I've written before about how the play, with its four-person cast and a few props, uses wit and inventiveness to retell the story of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie about a man caught up in a spy ring. I've seen far more elaborate shows that didn't thrill me and or make me laugh nearly as much.

For a brief period over the summer, as this New York Times article notes, The 39 Steps was the only play on Broadway. Arnie Burton, who's been with the production since Boston, called it "an homage to the theatre. It's a valentine to that kind of creativity and imagination, of doing so much with so little."

There's still time to see The 39 Steps on Broadway. Discounted tickets are available through Playbill.com.

The national tour has already been at the La Jolla Playhouse and moves to the Seattle Repertory Theatre from Sept. 25 to Oct. 24. Although the tour "officially" kicks off in November at the Shubert Theatre in New Haven. Here's the schedule.

In his review from La Jolla, Los Angeles Times critic Charles McNulty said that the play "sets out to prove that anything movies can do, theater can do less expensively and more hilariously." I definitely agree.


Todd Wallinger said...

Sounds like an incredible play and one I would love to see. I suspect, though, that the elaborate set pieces will put it beyond the budget of most theater companies where I live.

Maybe it'll go on tour?

Kevin Daly said...

I think it could work just as well, if not better, in a tiny black box theatre. It's so British in its comic sensibility that you really only need a clever costume designer and a fearless prop master. Set-wise it's very minimalistic so it can be done and on the cheap!

Esther said...

Thanks for the comments! I just added a link to the schedule for the national tour.

You know, it's not profound just clever and fun. I think it's better if you've seen the movie but even if you haven't, you'll catch the shoutouts to some of Hitcock's most famous films.

And Kevin is right - that's the beauty of it. There really aren't a lot of sets or costumes. Just a lot of imagination! I think it would be great for a small theatre.

And I agree, it does seem very British. Plus, I think they've captured the era so well - it's like you're seeing a play that could have been put on "in" the 1930s.

Howard said...

I'm so sad that 39 Steps is closing. It really was a magical piece of theatre and was definitely a highlight of my last NYC trip. All my family and friends over in New York that have seen it have loved it too. I'm hoping to be able to catch the tour when it comes to San Francisco too.

Esther said...

Hi Howard, thanks for the comment! I'm so glad you and your friends and family all enjoyed The 39 Steps. I think magical is a good word to use. It doesn't use a fancy set or props or special effects but it tells its story so well. It really is the magic of theatre. I hope I'll be able to see it again on tour, too.