Sunday, January 20, 2008

Not Quite Hitch

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Maria Aitken
Starring Arnie Burton, Charles Edwards, Jennifer Ferrin, Cliff Saunders

American Airlines Theatre
227 West 42nd Street
January 4–March 23, 2008

Adapting The 39 Steps for the stage seems a thankless task, since Hitchcock’s classic 1935 thriller starring Robert Donat is as deliciously entertaining as a murder mystery can get. The stage version’s title is Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, giving credit where credit is due. What’s onstage is, for much of its running time, a breathless, even ingenious stunt, as a quartet of extremely able (and athletic) actors literally run on and off the stage for two hours, and when they are not portraying dozens of different characters–well, two of the four, anyway–they are mimicking scenes from the movie or in a loving homage that lowers itself to mere spoofing occasionally, with amusing if not sidesplitting results.

A true Hitchcockian thriller, The 39 Steps concerns an innocent man, Richard Hannay, who must clear his name when accused of murder. Finding himself embroiled in international treachery after the mysterious woman he brought to his apartment is fatally stabbed, Richard is soon on the run, fending off policemen, Scotland Yard, suspicious locals and the killers themselves, before the murderous conspiracy is finally unmasked and he finds himself in the arms of the woman he met on the train while evading the authorities.

Hitchcock took this serviceable story and made a classic film with first-rate suspense, refreshing humor and breathless action sequences. Equaling Hitchcock’s achievement onstage would entail a superhuman effort, so the creators of The 39 Steps instead decided to go the spoofing route, which does allow the quartet of resourceful actors to recreate the movie, more or less, with a minimum of sets and costumes and a maximum of visual and aural cleverness.

It’s a stunt that usually works, thanks primarily to creative set/costume designer Peter McKintosh, lighting designer Kevin Adams and sound designer Mic Pool, who achieve marvelous effects by mimicking the look and style of Hitchcock’s silent movies, early talkies, and even later classics–there’s a funny visual allusion to the famous crop-dusting chase sequence in North by Northwest, thanks to resourceful use of shadow puppets.

The many Hitchcock references–there’s also dialogue that puns on various film titles and many visual nods to the likes of The Birds and Psycho (the shower scene, natch)–are obvious, but they don’t distract from the entertaining goings-on, kept moving at a brisk pace by director Maria Aitken. Which is where those well-conditioned actors come in: Charles Edwards is perfect as the Cary Grant (or Robert Donat) type hero, with the superb Jennifer Ferrin as the embodiment of the blonde femme fatale, and Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, who play dozens of characters in the blink of an eye (or drop of a hat): they must be exhausted by play’s end, but the audience is surely thankful for their presence.
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