Saturday, March 08, 2008

The 39 Steps (The SOB Review)

The 39 Steps (The SOB Review) - American Airlines Theatre, Roundabout Theatre Company, New York, NY

*** (out of ****)

How far is it from Winnipeg to Montreal?

A whole lot farther than 39 steps.

But there's just a few short degrees between super silly and supercilious, and yet the satire in The 39 Steps more than ably straddles the line -- along with bridges, the tops of trains, etc. -- making it, measure by measure, an inspired comic delight.

Through Maria Aitken's creative direction and Patrick Barlow's innovative adaptation (based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon), The 39 Steps gains incredible mileage from its rather wan source material, the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock.

On that note, I must confess that as much as I'm a fan of many of the great director's works, I had never seen this one -- until about two months ago. That was after I learned that a stage adaptation of Hitchcock's flick "The 39 Steps" would be heading across the Atlantic (the play continues its healthy London run at the West End's Criterion Theatre after winning last year's Olivier Award for Best New Comedy). Not only did this leap toward the top of my list of must-see shows, but it also required me to make a visit to my nearby video store to rent the original film.

Boy, am I glad I did, not necessarily because I think the film is particularly great -- it's now unintentionally laughable and a bit of a bore -- but it essentially informed and significantly enhanced my personal enjoyment of the stage send-up, providing me an understanding of the underlying plot points. What Aitken, Barlow & Co. have created is a hilariously inventive parody with a nearly line-by-line, frame-by-funny-frame finesse of one of Hitchcock's trademark wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time themes.

In this case, after a femme fatale is murdered in his London apartment, Canadian Richard Hanney (a charming Charles Edwards) finds himself embroiled in the middle of a clandestine conspiracy stretching from London to Scotland and back to steal away state secrets. En route, Hanney encounters scores of characters, yet the show's conceit is that they're all portrayed by just three marvelously industrious actors, who never skip a beat: Arnie Burton, Jennifer Ferrin and Cliff Saunders.

In fact, most of the show's heavy-lifting is accomplished by Burton and Saunders, whose inexhaustible energy would give a certain battery bunny a run for its money. As if a spy thriller needed any additional "thrill," these two certainly offer exhilarating performances that will take your breath away.

The 39 Steps also brilliantly sends-up at least a half dozen other Hitchcock flicks, seemlessly weaving them into the plot, thanks to the deceptively simple, yet ingenious staging (with credit going to Peter McKintosh for set and costumes, Kevin Adams' lighting and Mic Pool's sound design).

If the show stumbles at all, it's when it veers from the movie's familiar territory, specifically with its heavy-handed First Act touch that identifies the enemy as the Nazis (something the film never did). At this point, the piece becomes a bit labored. This is also one show that is ill-served by an intermission, which impedes the flow of what could accomplished in a little over 100 minutes.

Still, right down to a well-timed cameo by the maestro of suspense himself, The 39 Steps stands as an inspired homage to Alfred Hitchcock. But remember that a prior screening of the original film will serve as step in the right direction.

This is Steve On Broadway (SOB).

Click here for tickets.
Related Stories:
Did 39 Steps Benefit From Critical Leap? (January 16, 2008)
"39" Steps Into Broadway Opening (January 15, 2008)
39 Steps To The Great White Way (September 6, 2007)
Sunday At The Grosvenor House With Laurence (February 19, 2007)

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At 08 March, 2008, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Steve, are you in NYC this weekend? As I write this, I'm at the first intermission of August: Osage County. Based on your raves, I blew off 39 Steps and headed to the imperial. But guess what? Deanna Dunagan is out. The understudy is ok. The rest of the cast is incredible.

If you're in the city, send me an email and we can meet up.



At 08 March, 2008, Blogger Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

Chris, I'm actually en route to Chicago for another Steppenwolf opening, this time a Depression Era jazz-themed show called Carter's Way.

Sorry to learn Deanna Dunagan is out, but hope you're enjoying August: Osage County. I guess if I had to choose between it The 39 Steps, I would have made the same choice as you.

At 09 March, 2008, Blogger Esther said...

Hey Steve, Hope you're having a great time in Chicago!

And I'm so glad you enjoyed "The 39 Steps" after my big buildup! It's nice to know we laugh at some of the same things.

I just thought the show was so inventive, so unlike anything I'd seen before. It's amazing what you can do with four actors and a few props!

I especially loved Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders as the aptly named "clowns." Wow, the Energizer Bunny is right! They were terrific. They were like this two-man circus or two-man vaudeville act. I loved the quick-change, slapstick nature of their performances. I loved way they worked in references to other Hitchcock movies, as well as a cameo by the master himself. I really enjoyed Charles Edwards, too. He was just the perfect suave 1930s hero, not a hair out of place even as he flees for his life.

But you're also right that it's pretty essential to see the movie beforehand. I think I probably still would have found it funny, but not nearly as inspired if I hadn't seen the movie. There were a couple spots in Act 2 when I thought it dragged a bit, so it probably could have worked fine without an intermission.

Also, I was sitting toward the back of the theater when I saw the show in Boston during it's pre-Broadway run, and I do wish I'd gotten a closer look at the action. While I probably won't have a chance, this is a show I'd definitely see a second time. It was really fun!


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