I am going to give you a summary of this astounding tour de farce, now playing at the Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab of the Olney Center for the Arts, and then recommend that you forget it immediately.
Patrick Barlow’s plot for The 39 Steps, photocopied from the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name, which was lovingly lifted and subtly altered from the 1915 John Buchan novel of the same name, is merely the jungle gym for the antics of theater artists. If we go, it is to watch them play.
O.K., the summary: Richard Hannay (Jeffries Thaiss) has gone to the London Palladium to see the amazing Mr. Memory (Jason Lott), who apparently knows all the facts in the world. As Mr. Memory is telling Hannay the exact mileage from Winnipeg to Montreal, shots ring out. Hanney finds himself with an armful of Annabella Schmidt (Susan Lynskey), who talks him into taking her back to his flat. There she explains that she is in possession of information about a sinister man who has no top joint to his pinky finger; this man, she avers, knows a terrible secret called “The 39 Steps” and if he gets it out of the country, it will wreck havoc on the British Air Force. She implores Hannay to protect her against two shadowy secret agents (Lott and Evan Casey), but before the night is over she is stretched out (over Hannay’s lap, to be precise) with a knife in her back. Knowing that he will be the suspect, Hannay sneaks out, borrowing the milkman’s (Casey’s) uniform, and sets out to find the joint-deficient man.
On the train, Hannay is forced to sit with two braying purveyors of women’s underwear (Lott and Casey), until he realizes after picking up a paper from a vendor (Lott) that the cops (Lott and Casey) are after him. In fact, they’re on the train itself! Desperate to avoid their room-to-room search, he wraps a stranger, Pamela (Lynskey) in a passionate embrace in the hope that well-known British reticence would cause the police to look the other way. Pamela blows him in, though, as soon as the lip-lock is over, and he is forced to duck out of the train, only to fall into a local river. From there, wet and shivering, he walks to the Scottish town where Annabella thought the villain lived. He begs a night’s stay with a local farmer (Casey) and his wife (Lynskey), but they get the newspaper there too, and soon the farmer has summoned the local constable (Lott). Hanney makes another dive through a window, and wends his way to the home of a man he believes will be his ally – Professor Jordan (Casey). The Professor and his wife (Lott) welcome him, but then – shots ring out! And so on.
Well. If you’ve noticed that you’re seeing a lot of Lott – and of Casey and, to a lesser extent, Lynskey, then you’re coming to understand what The 39 Steps is all about. But if you think that all this multiple role-playing is simply Olney’s way of reducing costs you’ve missed the point, and, frankly, you’re a little thick, too.
Lott and Casey play roughly one billion characters apiece not because they have to but because they can. The 39 Steps is, first and foremost, an opportunity to see these fine actors switch characters instantaneously and with great wit and facility, morphing from man to woman to – well, to sheep, from Scot to Cockney to East Londoner to German, with the grace of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly, and at much greater speed. There is a scene in which they change from a Scottish hotelier (Lott) and her dimbulb husband (Casey) to two thugs and back again sentence-by-sentence; I dasn’t tell you more about it for fear of spoiling the pleasure you’ll take at it.
But take it from me that Lott and Casey are both superb; Casey shows great range after so convincingly playing a sniveler in Signature’s Really, Really, and Lott, having played all the characters in Hub Theatre’s Wonderful Life last December, has now played more characters in a six-month period than anyone in the history of Washington theater.
The second thing that The 39 Steps is is a sendup of Hitchcock’s film technique and the spy thriller in general. This is done with some wit, and Hitchcock aficionados will enjoy listening for invocations of his other works. (“Don’t leave by that window,” the farmer’s wife implores Richard, who needs to escape the nearby constable. “Take the rear window.”) The fact of the matter, though, is that Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” is a great movie, one of the hundred or so best of the last century, and that Buchan’s book, though a little implausible, is a cracking good read. What’s more, spycraft itself remains important work, as our CIA found out to its sorrow in 2001. It is funny to watch the play’s fourth-wall-breaching techniques – the essential props taken from one of the two formidable trunks onstage, or necessary furniture slung suddenly onstage by Lott or Casey – but a good spy thriller (and Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” was one of the best) resolutely maintains the fourth wall, and is the better for it.
Finally, The 39 Steps is the story of the burgeoning romance between Hannay and Pamela. This is probably the weakest element of the story, undercooked in Barlow’s script and reflecting a distinctly Taming of the Shrew sensibility which may have resonated more pleasingly in Buchan’s time than our own. (In addition to the stolen kiss, for which Hannay, being Canadian, apologizes profusely, Hannay drags the handcuffed Pamela out of a car and across the inhospitable moor, into a hotel with a single available room holding a single bed). But Thaiss and, in particular, Lynskey make it work. When Pamela has the upper hand, Lynskey plays her cool, knowing and commanding; when Hannay is in control, Lynskey’s Pamela appears to be silently calculating her next move, and when she finally makes a break for it, the development seems inevitable. Their romance, which comes about when Pamela discovers that Hannay had been telling the truth all along, is justified by the text, and by the performances to that point.
Thiass’ Hannay seems a little reminiscent of the character he played in Olney’s Witness for the Prosecution. Leonard Vole is (I can say it now) a murderer, and Richard Hannay is a hero, but both, in Mr. Thaiss’ hands, seem to be charming young men with more surface than depth, morally androgynous. Vole didn’t particularly want to murder, but he needed the money; Hannay wasn’t looking to be a hero, but he was bored. It is an interesting take on the role, and I bought it.
Under normal circumstances, a play whose principal virtue is that it shows off the skills of its actors is not much of a theater adventure. But in some instances – such as Jefferson Mays in I am my Own Wife – it’s just so damn good that you’ll kick yourself for missing it. This is one of those instances.
The 39 Steps
By Patrick Barlow, adapted from a Charles Bennett screenplay for Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” which in turn was adapted from a John Buchan novel of the same name.
Directed by Clay Hopper
Produced by Olney Center for the Arts
Reviewed by Tim Treanor
Running time: 2 hours 20minutes, including one intermission
Joe Brack’s 30 Steps interviews