Rep Stage’s “The 39 Steps” adapted by Patrick Barlow and directed by Joseph W. Ritsch, is presently playing at the Studio Theatre at the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College until May 19, 2019. It is based on the novel by John Buchan and the movie by the great Alfred Hitchcock. It is an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon.
This is a parody of the 1915 novel and the 1935 film. The British play was written originally by Corbel and Dimon for a cast of 4 actors. In 2005 Barlow adapted the script but kept the scenes and small stage feeling. It debuted in the United States in 2007 and on Broadway (771 performances) in 2008 and ran both on Broadway and off-Broadway until 2016. The play has been produced under several names, “John Buchan’s 39 Steps” “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” “The 39 Steps” and “39 Steps.” It has won several awards including two Tony awards. Only the main protagonist has a continual role, Richard Hannay (Robbie Gay). The other approximately 100 roles are played by the other three actors, sometimes at two or three at a time. The Hitchcock aficionado will note allusions to other works, notably “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “The Birds” “Psycho” and “North by Northwest.”
Ritsch’s direction is bold and ingenious. He squeezes every laugh he can from every scene.
This production begins before the first lines. The actors enter with the crew and pretend to be, well, actors getting ready for the opening. We see them primp before a dressing room mirror, and chat with each other, in an effort to break down that fourth wall. This is the inkling that we are not going to see a traditional realistic play (It should be noted that even when the four actors are doing this pre-opening bit, they are playing characters, Gay the pompous British stage actor, Kathryn Tkel the beautiful actress with a big ego). Then we hear, “The Waltz of the Marionettes,” Hitchcock’s theme on his television show, followed by a mimic of the great director spouting the usual pre-play announcements.
After a short introductory monologue by Hannay, once they “bring in the clowns” played by Noah Israel (Clown #1) and Michael Wood (Clown #2), the hilarity ensues. Hannay heads to the theatre, really more a vaudeville show, to see a performer whose “schtick” is he has an unbelievable memory. There Hannay meets Annabella Schmidt, a Theda Bara type vamp with a long cigarette holder and a thick Eastern European accent. Schmidt embroils Hannay in espionage where the clue to all is the phrase “The 39 Steps.”
Murder, chase scenes, including a hilarious one on a train, spooky Scottish mansions, murky Scottish moors, a very rural farmhouse, and a hotel run by a very odd and kilted husband and wife are easy sources for some fine comedy. The two clowns play so many roles I lost count after two dozen, each one as uproarious as its predecessor. The play is topped off by two of the most sidesplitting and longest death scenes in recent memory (I won’t tell you who dies to keep from spoiling it for those not familiar with the story).
Gay’s portrayal of the smug bachelor, a little Cary Grant and little Robert Donat, is on the mark. Gay plays Hannay’s predicaments tongue in cheek to keep the hero from looking too silly. Gay is brilliant in his physical comedy as well. The scenes where he has to wiggle out of a chair and the one where he and the romantic female, Pamela (also Tkel), get twisted on a fence when they are handcuffed together are Chaplinesque.
Tkel only gets a chance to play three roles, Annabella, the vamp, Pamela, the love interest and Margaret, the farmer’s young wife swept off her feet by the charming Hannay. Although she is very funny in all three roles, her Annabella is off the wall. Tkel’s spy is sexy but absurd, a little vampish, a little mysterious and a little Julia Louis-Dreyfus.
Israel and Wood are like watching Laurel and Hardy. There is a great physical comedy, even on small scenes like riding the train as they climb over a small suitcase as if it was a large steamer trunk. They use a variety of strong British accents to add to the laughter, their Scottish husband and wife are priceless. Their timing is impeccable. They play so many roles, including a light switch, that it is hard to pick a favorite. Their roles also require great choreography as they jump from one character to the next in many scenes. Israel and Wood never miss a step, including the 39th.
Ritsch’s direction is bold and ingenious. He squeezes every laugh he can from every scene. The finale which includes a balcony scene at the theatre is ingenious. If I have one question about the production, it would be the decision not to make Pamela the prototypical Hitchcock blonde. Hitchcock had one in almost every movie, including “The 39 Steps.” However, this does not detract from any of the humor or wonderful pacing of the performance.
James Fouchard’s Scenic Design is wonderfully flexible as we travel from London to the train on its way to Scotland, to the moors, to the mansion, to the theatre, to the farm and to the hotel. As a backstage person, myself, I appreciate, too, the Properties Design by Jason Dearing. Dearing’s attention to detail, for example, the old British telephone, the patched tablecloth of the farmer’s wife, and of course, the flock of birds, help to make the production exceptional.
Joan L. Mather also cleverly keeps her costumes in period, but the costumes also increase the comedy. That includes the kilts of the Scottish husband and wife and the stockings and garters on Pamela.
With just this type of simple structured (but really complicated) set, lighting is very important in creating effects, for instance, wind and storms, and moods, for example, eeriness and impending disaster. Conor Mulligan’s Lighting Design is a valuable tool in this farce. It elicits all the necessary reactions by the audience without being intrusive.
Sarah O’Halloran’s Sound Design also complements the show and adds many laughs (phones that keep ringing when answered, door knocks that are a bell, etc.).
Teresa Spencer is the Dialect Coach and I am sure she had her hands full as there are almost as many British and European dialects as there are characters.
Amanda Reandeau, Assistant Stage Manager, and Courtney Giugliano, directorial intern and part of the running crew, also appear onstage throughout the production. So often, they came out for a bow with the cast. They have to keep things moving on and off stage and still play a character for the audience, not an easy task, especially in a show with many costume changes, important props, rolling set pieces and precision light and sound cues. This coordination is also due to the amazing Stage Manager, Josie R. Felt, who conducted the production from the booth.
One of the fun parts of this show is to try to find those references to other Hitchcock movies. Some are obvious and others more subtle. It is also interesting to note that the plot follows the movie almost to a tee.
It is obvious why this show ran in New York City for so many performances and why it is one of the most performed plays of the 21st Century. Tickets are selling fast. Make sure you don’t wait too long to buy yours or you will miss out of a night of just plain fun.
Running Time: Two hours and 3 minutes including intermission.
“The 39 Steps” plays at Rep Stage through May 19, 2019, in the Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center at Howard Community College — 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, in Columbia, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (443) 518-1500, or purchase them online.