The deal about The 39 Steps is not that it’s a theatrical reproduction of the great Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. It’s that it’s what such a reproduction would look like on a budget equal to a one way Metro ticket.
It would be, of course, hilarious.
That such a wry, knowing, self-referential – and difficult – play would be the initial offering of a company that until two months ago was a community theater might be a little surprising if you didn’t know the community theater involved. The award-winning Elden Street Players was always five steps bolder and ten steps more successful than people expected them to be; building a working River Styx for The Invention of Love and having their actors appropriately naked for Love! Valor! Compassion!
Elden Street is now NextStop Theatre Company, a full-fledged professional company. The performers are all professionals, of course, as 39 Steps Director (and Artistic Director) Evan Hoffman says, the company is “building this vision on the exceptional history and tradition of Elden Street Players.” Hoffman walks the walk: The 39 Steps is exactly the sort of play Elden Street did best: witty, fast-paced and just this side of over-the-top.
Here’s the story: we are in England, between the wars. Richard Hannay (James Finley), wealthy, bored and Canadian, decides to take in a show at the London Palladium. It is an exhibition of memory by a man (Evan Crump) who apparently knows every trivial fact in human history. Suddenly, shots ring out! A beautiful, exotic German woman (Emily Levey) begs Hannay to take her home to his flat. She reveals that a dangerous spy (Nick Rose) – you’ll know him because he is missing the tip of his little finger – is attempting to smuggle a secret known only as “The 39 Steps” out of England. Suddenly – murder! And Hanney is a suspect! And – police chases! Daring sprints across the top of train cars! Betrayals! Goons disguised as cops! Cops disguised as goons! A stop at a political rally! (Wait. What?) A plucky heroine! A vaguely naughty stop at a Scottish hotel! And so on.
You can guess how this story works itself out, but it will be more fun to go and watch it. The fun is watching the actors trying to make a go of it amidst the bare bones staging – Hannay, for example, looking out a makeshift window at the trenchcoated Crump and Rose underneath a fake streetlight; every time he looks away they try to creep offstage to prepare for their next scene but every time he looks back they desperately scramble back in view, dragging the street lamp with them – and in catching the Hitchcock movie references.
An audience favorite the night I saw it was how the production showed villains (Crump and Rose), after trying to shoot Hannay from the air, disastrously crash their plane: Levey runs on stage with a model airplane shouting “Oh no! Change directions!” in a small voice from behind a closed hand several times while turning around and around; eventually she lands it gently on the ground (only one model plane in the budget, don’t you know) while making explosive sounds. Another: when Hannay, seemingly trapped in a Scottish farmhouse, is guided out by the farmer’s lovely wife (Levey). “Don’t use that window,” she implores, “use the rear window.”
The 39 Steps
Closes October 20, 2013
NextStop Theatre at
Industrial Strength Theatre
269 Sunset Business Park
1 hour, 55 minutes with 1 intermission
Tickets: $25 – $27
Thursdays thru Sundays
Generally, though, the production plunges right into the play’s cheerful dreck, and to good effect. Rose strikes exactly the right note – three octaves above middle C, I would guess – in his lunatic portrayals of various lunatic characters, and Crump does a particularly nice turn in speed recitation. Levey brought an undeniable lightness and playfulness to her various roles.
Scenic designer James Villarubia and his crew turned the Industrial Strength backstage into a grimy warehouse somewhere on the MGM backlot. Simple, you say? When you see it, remember, it all strikes at the end of the run. And though the copious use of fog sometimes interferes with AnnMarie Castrigno’s lighting design, all is forgiven at intermission, when, with a nod to London’s West End tradition, NextStop staff cheerfully roll in an enormous cart of high-quality local snacks into the theatre. Very classy indeed.
The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from a novel by John Buchan, directed by Evan Hoffman, featuring James Finley, Emily Levey, Evan Crump and Nick Rose. Set design by James Villarubia, costume design by Jenny O’Donnell, Lighting design by AnnMarie Castrigno, Sound design by Stan Harris, assisted by Brian Christianson. Susan d. Garvey was the production manager and Alexis Rose and Laura Moody served as stage managers. Produced by NextStop Theatre Company . Reviewed by Lorraine Treanor.