Karl Marx once said that history repeats itself “occurring first as tragedy, the second time as farce” and so The 39 Steps, now enjoying a limited run at the Warner, can best be seen as a theatrical magic act – a send-up of a great movie. The great movie, of course, is the 1935 Hitchcock movie of the same name, in which a bored Canadian gentleman becomes suddenly possessed (through the agency of a beautiful, dying spy) of some important clues about a massive conspiracy against Britain, and thereafter is chased by all and sundry throughout Scotland as he tries to suss out the mystery.
The element which makes the stage version so intriguing is that “all and sundry” are played by two men, the magically gifted Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson. The pair are trenchcoated German spies, vulgar underwear salesmen, cops and bad guys masquerading as cops, the chief spy and his wife, various geographic landmarks and pieces of vegetation, a Scottish hotelier and his doting wife, and – well, everything, except the protagonist (who is played by Ted Deasy) and his various love interests (all of whom are played by Claire Brownell). Hissom and Parkinson take on – and put off – their roles in dizzying succession; at one point Parkinson plays two men simultaneously, alternating between characters according to which side of his body he presents to the audience. (Costume Designer Peter McKintosh has sown halves of two different costumes together to enhance the presentation.)
The story is faithful to the Hitchcock movie and the John Buchan novel which provoked it. Richard Hannay (Deasy), in London and not happy about it, decides to relieve his ennui by going to an exhibition by the astounding Mr. Memory (Hissom). While there, ahem, shots ring out. A beautiful woman (Brownell) begs Hannay to shelter her against men who are trying to kill her. He takes her in but it is no use; someone stabs her in the back anyway. Dying, she gives him a map of Scotland with an address marked on it; her mission has become his.
Of course, he is instantly suspected of being the killer. He sneaks onto a train to Scotland, traveling under an assumed name, and there attempts to evade the harrowing police (Hissom and Parkinson). In desperation, he smothers a beautiful stranger (Brownell) with a passionate kiss in order to hide his face, but she responds by slapping him in the face and blowing him in. He escapes through a window and thereafter runs along the roof of the train, chased by a cop, before he jumps off in Scotland. I dasn’t tell you what happens after that – it’s a suspense story, after all – but suffice it to say that he is chased by the forces of evil, all played by Hissom and Parkinson, and that he eventually reunites with the beautiful stranger, eventually overcoming her profound skepticism and winning her as an ally, and more.
I suppose such a thing could only be played as farce in these cynical times, but Patrick Barlow’s adaptation is such an agreeable farce that even enthusiasts of the Hitchcock movie should enjoy it, and the producers, Broadway Across America, give it a slam-bang treatment (the first Act takes only forty-five minutes). The actors declaim in the exaggerated style of the 1930s, and then take it ten degrees further; they move their heads in synchronized and syncopated amazement, dismay, disbelief, or whatever is called for; and sound designer Mic Pool drops the familiar 1930s cinema music into all the familiar 1930s cinema music moments. The play is generally faithful to the movie dialogue, but it occasionally works in clever references to Hitchcock’s other movies (“Don’t use that window,” the beautiful wife (Brownell) of a harsh Scottish farmer (Hissom) tells Hannay as he seeks to escape the cops at the front door. “Use the Rear Window.”). It makes other contemporary references, too. (Having blundered into a political rally while escaping the cops, Hannay is mistaken for the opening speaker and shoved to the podium. “Change!” he blurts. “Yes we can!”). The movie’s action scenes are reduced to ridiculous silhouettes, with figures very obviously on sticks running through hills, riding deer, and so on behind a brown sheet. One moment which seems like it was specially scripted for the farce – involving a bullet and a hymnal – actually comes from the original movie, showing how close tragedy and farce actually are.
It should not come as a shock that the director is Maria Aitken, who directed the Shakespeare Theatre’s cinema-besotted As You Like It earlier this year. Like her Shakespeare play, The 39 Steps takes an approach which is both knowing and loving. In this she is assisted by a superb technical staff, which includes in addition to Pool and McKintosh (who also designed the very serviceable set) the fabulous Kevin Adams, whose lighting design is a full co-conspirator for all the shenanigans which make this production so delightful.
Anybody can enjoy this play, but I recommend it especially for those who love story and those who love theater, the conventions of both of which are here exposed to gentle ribbing. And for those who love Hitchcock, too. I do not know whether he ever had a roast when he was alive, but if not this will serve: affectionate and astute.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the movie, The 39 Steps, which was adapted from the John Buchan novel by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay
Directed by Maria Aitken
Produced by Broadway Across America at the Warner Theatre
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
The 39 Steps is only here until March 28, 2010.
THE 39 STEPS