Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps
Richard Hannay - Charles Edwards
Annabella, Pamela, Margaret - Jennifer Ferrin
Clowns - Cliff Saunders, Arnie Burton
Innocent-man-on-the-run story is played entirely in stylized, tongue-in-cheek fashion, with occasional trips into Carol Burnett territory -- or even as a kind of "Forbidden Hitchcock." That it's presented so deftly, cleverly and -- at less than two hours, including intermission -- quickly makes this amusement park ride of a show more than satisfying.
But lacking a subversive streak, a satirical bite or even a human touch, the comic confection is likely to fade from memory soon after the curtain comes down. Not likely to disappear, however, are the multitudes of productions this four-person, simple-space show will generate in theaters in the years to come.
Based on the movie (which saw two remakes) and the 1915 John Buchan novel that may not be as familiar to Stateside auds as to Brits, the heightened silliness is sustained by its locomotive pace; the inventiveness of the staging (in addition to director Maria Aitkin, two names are credited for "movement"); and the likeability of the quartet of performers, headed by Charles Edward, who re-creates his West End star turn.
Edwards plays the unflappable, suave Canadian (Robert Donat in the film) who gets mixed up in a spy-ring plot and becomes the quintessential Hitchcockian mistaken man on the run. In his cyclical journey, the character encounters a murdered femme fatale, a disfigured espionage leader, the Loch Ness monster, several henchmen, unbelieving police and Mr. Memory, the eccentric music hall performer who holds the key to the plot.
But the mystery of "39 Steps" is the least interesting part of the production -- sort of the theatrical MacGuffin, if you will. The tension, thrills and comedy come from watching the actors pulling off cinematic scenes from their theatrical bag of tricks, whether it be a chase in, around and on top of a speeding train; an escape through Scottish bogs; or marching in a parade of bagpipe players.
Edwards, whose eyebrows are arched through most of the goings-on, has the sweet daftness and understated dash of a '30s leading man who knows too much. His droll elan -- not a hair out of place on his perfectly coiffed head during these cross-country runs -- is the comic calm amidst the madness that surrounds him.
In a variety of female roles (some drag work covers others), Jennifer Ferrin plays Pamela, the archetypal cool blond played by Madeleine Carroll in the film. But Ferrin is even more hysterical as a thick-accented German babe who gets offed in the hero's flat.
Playing the rest of the scores of characters from the film are the inexhaustible Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, both of whom have their tour de farce moments, Burton's meltdown at play's climax as the spymaster and Saunders' soft-spoken, blathering politician among them.
The production features sly touches that cineastes will savor (Mr. Memory's tilting posture nicely echoes the extreme angle shots from the film), while more obvious references to Hitchcock are struck regularly like gongs. ("The lady vanished as well," says one of the scores of characters. "We're just strangers on a train," says another.)
Production nicely honors Hitchcock by placing him in the title of the play (and giving him a fun cameo). But that's as it should be. The 87-minute film's economy, pace, irreverence and sense of theatrical style gave these savvy adapters and quick wits strong source material with which to provide theatergoers a jolly good time.
Sets and costumes, Peter McKintosh; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Mic Pool; original movement, Tony Sedgwick; additional movement, Christopher Bayes; production stage manager, Nevin Hedley. Opened, reviewed Sept. 19, 2007. Runs through Oct. 14. Running time: 1 HOUR, 50 MIN.
Hitch a ride
Master of suspense gets slapstick take in 'The 39 Steps' at the Huntington
‘‘The 39 Steps’’ comes to the Huntington Theatre Company, where its American premiere opens the main-stage season, with promises of high hilarity and theatrical thrills.
The play (its full, underpunctuated title is ‘‘Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps’’) won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for best new comedy in London; after Boston, it’s already scheduled to move to Broadway. And it certainly sounds promising: a slapstick stage adaptation of the 1935 Hitchcock film, which was itself an ingenious reimagining of the 1915 John Buchan spy novel about a bon vivant caught up in a web of international intrigue.
As it turns out, the play has many amusing moments, even more clever ones, and a few truly inventive instances of imaginative stagecraft. But somehow all these pleasures do not combine to transport us onto the high, giddy plane of sustained comedic rapture. ‘‘The 39 Steps’’ is too insubstantial a bit of moonshine to make any claim on us other than entertainment, so it needs to be extremely entertaining.
Hitchcock accomplished that feat with razor-sharp construction and expertly accumulated suspense. The stage version, directed by Maria Aitken and adapted by the British comedian and playwright Patrick Barlow from a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon (phew!), undercuts the suspense with goofy puns and sight gags, then lets the goofiness sag for minutes at a time by doggedly returning to its faithful retracing of the screenplay’s steps. All 39 of them, and then some.
In fairness, the wit and economy of some effects are dazzling: the chase scene atop a hurtling train, represented by a row of leather trunks; three ladders transformed into a steel bridge; the strobe lights and flashlights and footlights that lighting designer Kevin Adams amusingly employs to re-create the flickering chiaroscuro of the film; and, best of all, the shadow-puppet sequence that turns a sheet and a few bits of cardboard into Hitchcock’s lowering Highland skies and ominous biplanes, then escalates into a hilarious pastiche of Hitchcockian images. (Don’t miss the cameo by a very familiar silhouette.)
The actors, too, display a breathtaking range of skills and moods. First of all, there are just four of them, filling more than 100 roles. Charles Edwards, as the hunted but ever debonair protagonist, Richard Hannay, is the only import from the London cast, and he delivers a gently satiric version of the film’s debonair Robert Donat with effortless charm. Jennifer Ferrin gets the wisecracking ingenue role — handcuffed to Hannay, whom she believes to be a murderer — and executes it with wit and style.
But the real heroes are the two actors each billed only as ‘‘Clown,’’ Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders. With dizzying speed and crack timing, they slip from one character to the next, and the next, and the next, as easily as they change hats — or bowlers, or caps, or bobbies’ helmets, or tam o’shanters, or nightcaps, or sou’westers, or scarves. Credit designer Peter McKintosh for the fastidious selection of headgear — and for the precise assortment of props that allows the creation of all those scenes — but credit Burton and Saunders for their expert execution of some devilishly demanding tasks.
If only all that hard work actually led somewhere. Instead, we’re intermittently diverted by a playful visual effect, reduced to groans by a deliberately dreadful pun on a Hitchock title, or prodded to admire the cleverness of replicating cinematic images with minimal theatrical props. Yes, it’s brilliant to make a waterfall out of a shower curtain. But it’s even more brilliant — and more entertaining — to do it without insisting that we keep noticing how.
Friday, September 21, 2007
I was surprised when I sat down at the BU Theatre to find the stage utterly bare, save a ladder perched in the corner. Not your typical Huntington fare. On top of that, the epic espionage tale was to be acted out by a mere four people.
Once “The 39 Steps” got under way, things became clear. After a flurry of commotion amid the flashing of strobes, the lights came up on our dashing hero, Richard Hannay (Charles Edwards, of the West End production), seated in his flat. He attends a variety show that’s abruptly interrupted when a mysterious German woman (Jennifer Ferrin) fires a gun into the theater. Then it’s back to Hannay’s flat, where the shooter ends up with a knife in her back. Wanted for murder, our man boards a train for Scotland in a desperate bid to solve the mystery and clear his name.
But this is only the plot and that’s not what matters here. “The 39 Steps” is a giddy exercise in form from start to finish. Though Edwards has only one character to play, Ferrin portrays three separate fair maidens. As for Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, they play too many parts to count: spies, farmers, evil masterminds, even various geographical features of the Scottish Highlands.
But how to bring cinema, particularly that of an auteur like Hitchcock, to the stage? In the silliest way possible, of course. The actors use their bodies to portray things - a high wind across the moors, the rattling of a railway car, the force of a punch - that aren’t there at all. The re-creation of the film’s famous chase scene on top of a speeding train involves Edwards jumping across a series of packing trunks, shaking his overcoat madly behind him to simulate wind.
Maria Atkins’ entire production plays with tongue firmly planted in cheek. The actors move with the melodramatic swagger associated with old movies. The characters are good-naturedly self-aware of the theatricality of their actions. “Hello, there’s the telephone,” Hannay proclaims five seconds before it rings. “The 39 Steps” makes frequent, winky references to Hitch’s other films, recreating the chase scene from “North by Northwest” and even a trademark cameo by the familiar rotund silhouette.
But don’t see “The 39 Steps” for the woefully marginalized story or for the love of Hitch; see it for the shear pleasure of theatrical artifice in full tilt.
“THE 39 STEPS”
Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company, at the Boston University Theatre, Wednesday night. Through Oct. 14.
'39 Steps' climbs to zany heights
BOSTON — "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps" is headed for Broadway after its U.S. debut at the Huntington. How ironic, then, that its success may well rest on its community theater sensibilities.
Based on Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie about an Englishman who gets inadvertently embroiled in espionage, "39 Steps" features a cast of four people performing 139 roles (more astonishingly, all but four of those roles are played by two men). Oh, and they do it in two hours, in a series of sets that re-creates every scene in the movie, including a biplane crash in the skies over Scotland and a murder in the London Palladium.
If you're laughing at the very idea, you'll laugh even harder watching Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders race around the stage, trying to look like spies underneath a lamppost one minute, an inquisitive milkman the next, then a Monty Pythonesque innkeeper and wife, then a parade of bagpipers. You have to see it to believe it.
Ditto for the sets, which rely on a couple dozen pieces of furniture, some shadow puppetry (the biplane crash is particularly hilarious) and the imagination of the audience, aided by the physical movements of the cast. When a cast member wants to convey the escape of a character through a window, for example, he simply holds on to a window frame and climbs out of it.
Doing a lot of the fleeing and climbing is Charles Edwards, who starred in the London production of "39 Steps," which won this year's Olivier Award for best new comedy. From his Act 1-opening raised eyebrow, Edwards establishes himself as the embodiment of the dashing Richard Hannay, Our Hero. Bored, looking for adventure, he stumbles upon a good one during a "Mr. Memory" show at the Palladium, where, as they say, shots ring out and a mysterious female begs him to take her home. She's a spy, apparently, and not long for this world to boot. When she turns up dead in his apartment, Hannay tries to complete her mission and save England, if not the world. That's where the 39 Steps come in. Well, more or less.
Ultimately aiding Hannay — against her will at first, of course — is the lovely Pamela (Jennifer Ferrin), who ends up shackled to him by foreign agents (providing one of the best lines ever on a movie poster: "Handcuffed To The Woman Who Betrayed Him").
The plot was pretty goofy in 1935 and it's goofy still, but 10 minutes into this wacky ride, you won't give a hoot, because you're too fascinated to see how they pull it off.
It's not an exaggeration to say that Peter McKintosh's scenic and costume designs, Kevin Adams' lights and Mic Pool's sounds are as much characters in this play as the exuberant cast. The "we've got a barn, let's put on a play" sentiment, so familiar to Cape audiences through the years, has been raised to a fine art here, and it's simply infectious. Whether it's a door on wheels that characters have to keep walking through to simulate strolling through a many-roomed mansion, or watching Burton and Saunders maniacally try to portray
two train passengers, a cop
and a paperboy in one five-minute scene, it's great fun to watch.
(And, if you go, don't forget to keep track of all the allusions to Hitchcock's films. I wish I had kept score.)
"The 39 Steps" is not, on the hilarious-o-meter, as outrageously funny as, say, "Monty Python's Spamalot," but it's pretty darned close
A stage-remake of Hitchcock's film 'steps' toward comedy
Four and a half stars out of five
By: Naomi Bryant
The story begins in 1935 and introduces protagonist Richard Hannay (Charles Edwards), who leads an empty, lonely life. He goes to see a "Mr. Memory" show to distract himself and ends up bringing home Annabella Schmidt (Jennifer Ferrin), a woman with a ridiculous accent (is it German? Czech? Russian?) and blood-red lipstick. Annabella tells him that a secret organization involving "the 39 steps" is intent on killing her, but Richard is more interested in other things, and doesn't pay much attention.
The next morning she falls into his lap dead, a knife sticking out of her back and a crumpled map of Scotland clenched in her fist. Action ensues as Richard attempts to unravel the mystery of Annabella's death and is chased through the countryside by corrupt policemen and hired hit men.
From the plot alone, one might expect "The 39 Steps" to be a combination thriller and murder mystery. The show does indeed have elements of both genres, including several startlingly realistic gunshots, a lot of fog, and detectives lurking by lampposts.
But it is more like one long Monty Python skit; the storyline is just an excuse to make jokes and place characters in otherwise impossibly awkward situations. Exaggerated accents and facial expressions (Charles Edwards could hold the world record for incredulous eyebrow raises) give moments of the play a satirical feel. Thanks to brilliant acting, even the most predictable and juvenile jokes come off as genius, and since "The 39 Steps" lasts well under two hours, it ends before its humor has time to get old.
For a play based on a movie based on a book, "The 39 Steps" is a refreshingly innovative piece of theatre. Shadow puppetry adds dimension and variety to two chase scenes, and subtle sound effects like a dog barking in the background or the telephone ringing are reminiscent of Hitchcock's films.
The set and props are minimal, consisting of little more than doorways, chairs, and boxes, but are used so creatively that they lead the audience to wonder what the cast will do with them next. Actors often switch the set around themselves (at one point they build a car out of two boxes and a podium that had been a stage), but the set changes and onstage prop building are so tasteful and quick that they don't distract the audience from what's happening between the actors.
Much of the show, including its minimal props, depends heavily on its cast. Four actors play over 150 roles, often switching characters and costumes right onstage. The two 'clowns,' Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, play the majority of the 150 roles and are crucial to the show.
Jennifer Ferrin excels at all three of her roles, switching effortlessly from the dark and mysterious Annabella to the lonely farmwife Margaret to the prim, goody-two-shoes Pamela. Edwards as the laughably debonair Hannay is the perfect leading man. All in all, the cast makes this play well worth seeing. The comedic timing is perfect and the energy never fades.
With its obvious costume and set changes and its many references to its small cast size, "The 39 Steps" is exceptionally aware of itself as a play. It continually makes light of the audience's agreement to suspend disbelief during the show. The actors obviously take their work seriously, but they never claim to be putting on more than a theatrical show, and this makes "The 39 Steps" more widely accessible than many other recent plays.
The show is making its U.S. premier at the Boston University Theatre, which is vintage-classy and small enough so that every seat has a good view of the stage. "The 39 Steps" is worth going to, even if just for an hour and a half of pure fun, or to get a 'step' away from shows that take themselves too seriously.
Excellent comic adventure at 39 Steps
Cast shines in stylish night of theatre
Melinda Green, Correspondent
Best described as a 'screwball suspense,' The 39 Steps is an immensely enjoyable stage adaptation based on the John Buchan novel and 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film. Each impeccably staged scene is a celluloid fantasy brought to life. The cast of four deftly executes costume and character changes with a remarkable smoothness. Each actor nails the nuances of physical comedy with such incredible timing you can hardly believe it's actually live.
British actor Charles Edwards portrays the dashing Richard Hannay, a handsome London gentleman seemingly bored with life. This all changes when a chance run-in with a German femme fatale (Jennifer Ferrin) leads to murder, mystery and intrigue.
Ferrin is the lone female, luminous as each Hannay's three love interests. Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, who uniquely embody everything from a Scotland Yard bobby to a bourgeois hausfrau, hilariously portray all other characters. Directed in both London and Boston by Maria Aitken, The 39 Steps is also a stylish homage to Hitchcock himself, with his memorable film scenes sporadically interwoven into the plot. Through a masterful series of lighting and shadow tricks, combined with simple props and sound effects, the sparse Huntington stage takes on appearances typically only found in film. Combined with the actors' pitch perfect timing and chemistry, The 39 Steps is the closest thing a person can get into stepping into the Golden Age of Cinema.
The 39 Steps through Oct. 14 at the Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave.
Published on Wed, Sep 26, 2007
Stage adaptation of Hitchcock's '39 Steps' worth it
If you were to pick the film genre that’s least suited for adapting to the stage, you might choose action movies. With their big casts, extravagant locations and hair-raising stunts, action stories rely on a fast pace and tight editing — a bad match with the clunky machinations of live theater.
But that’s probably why writer Patrick Barlow chose to adapt “The 39 Steps.” He saw the inherent humor in taking an action story and throwing it in the lap of four actors, forcing them to play countless characters while re-enacting high-tech scenes that have no business on the stage. The lower-budget the solution, the funnier the results — an empty picture frame being held by an actor, for example, is a window into a house, and if the actor has to lower it a bit in order to step through it, then so be it.
This stage version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “39 Steps” is an obstacle course, and the joy for the audience is in watching the actors solve all the problems, or — just as enjoyable — watching them throw their hands up in defeat. A West End hit that’s Broadway bound, “39 Steps” plays at the Huntington Theatre in Boston through Oct. 12.
Charles Edwards snags top billing. He’s the only actor who plays just one role — Richard Hannay, a Londoner whose trip to the theater one night thrusts him into the world of international espionage. It’s 1935, and Europe is spinning into war. Richard, who suddenly finds himself wrongly accused of murder, must dodge the law until he solves the great mystery of the “39 steps.” (Sounds serious? It isn’t.) Edwards apparently was a hit in the West End production, and why not? He’s got the heightened delivery and sharp-eyed squint that’s a dead-on mock-up of all those black-and-white noir mysteries of the 1930s, filled with hard-boiled men and dangerous women. It’s hard to tell which is more arched — Edwards’ eyebrows or his performance.
Edwards may be at the center of the show, but Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders are at its heart. They are the two men, mostly teamed together, who shuffle roles as quickly as they can (in one Marx Brothers moment) shuffle hats.
Jennifer Ferrin is also a prize, a beauty in each of the half-dozen mysterious characters she inhabits. She could convince any man to become a war-era spy.
The show belongs to the actors, but, of course, the director gets a big assist. Maria Aitken masterfully gives the cast just a little bit less than they need to make it all work, and the fun is in watching them cope.
But, in the end, “The 39 Steps” isn’t about the limits of the stage, it’s about the magic of the stage. In an odd way, the show’s ridiculously minimalist train scene — four boxes, oblique lighting, and actors who convince you they’re on top of a hurtling train — is more absorbing than anything Steven Spielberg could muster with his million-dollar budgets. That’s because while Spielberg so ably does all the work for you at the movie theater, audiences are active participants in the magic of live theater. If the train scene in this “39 Steps” works for you — and it will — your own imagination deserves part of the credit.
It’s a romp. And, it should be noted, it’s little more than a romp. These characters are as thin as Richard’s pencil moustache. It would seem possible to tell this same funny story and yet still have a central relationship that you cared about, especially with the likeable Edwards and the alluring Ferrin in the cast. But that’s one more step than “39 Steps” takes. It’s content instead to just look good — actors as athletes rather than explorers of the human condition.
But when theater so often gets attached to Important Subjects that keep patrons away in droves, there’s nothing wrong with a show that makes you smile and laugh (and rarely think) from start to finish. If there’s someone in your life who you have trouble dragging to the theater because they want to be entertained and not challenged, then take them to “39 Steps.” It’s not only a light and enjoyable night out, it’s also, in an odd and effective way, a kind of primer on the unique magic of the theater.
The 39 Steps
by Brian Jewell
Thursday Sep 27, 2007
The 39 Steps hits comic heights; Ophelia is all wet
No matter how many steps it takes, get to the Huntington Theatre for The 39 Steps, an evanescent comedy that’s lightly landed in Boston on its way from London’s West End to Broadway. This bare bones spy spoof is loaded with more cleverness and ingenuity than you’ll see in half a dozen bloated Broadway touring companies, and more laughs than you’ll find anywhere outside of a Gold Dust Orphans show.
The show closely follows Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller about an innocent man accused of murder who must evade the police long enough to prevent state secrets from reaching enemy hands. Although the film has joined the hallowed ranks of the Criterion Collection thanks to Hitchcock’s masterful direction, the corny story doesn’t hold up so well. The main character’s leading characteristic is that he’s British, and with upper lip suitably stiffened and a faint aura of tweedy smugness, Richard Hannay tries to foil foreign spies because it’s the right thing to do, dash it. Why does he believe the femme fatale who sets the plot in motion? Why doesn’t he go to the police? Why does he fall in love with the young woman he meets on the way? These are just a few of the improbabilities the film skirts.
In other words, the movie is ripe for parody, and the Huntington production spoofs it mercilessly, but also affectionately. The play is true to the underlying themes of performance and changeable identities, and seems to take inspiration from the music hall scenes that bookend the film. Here the entire show is a zany vaudeville revue full of quick verbal and visual humor. Part of the fun is the witty economy with which a cast of just four players, with minimal sets and props, faithfully recreate the film. Writer Patrick Barlow and director Maria Aitken have meticulously crafted all this clever stagecraft and flawless physical comedy, but the cast make it look so effortless that the show has the feeling of a brilliant improvisation; it seems anything could happen, any theatrical problem can be deftly solved, and each gag feels freshly minted, even the groaners. It’s about as deep as a paper cut, but it’s marvelous fun.
The 39 Steps is at Boston University Theater through Oct. 14; visit huntingtontheatre.org for more info.
'39 Steps' Delivers 100s of Laughs
Sunday, September 30, 2007; Posted: 2:22 AM - by Jan Nargi
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow; based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon; based on the book by John Buchan; directed by Maria Aitken; scenic and costume design by Peter McKintosh; lighting design by Kevin Adams; sound design by Mic Pool
Cast in alphabetical order:
Clown, Arnie Burton
Richard Hannay, Charles Edwards
Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret, Jennifer Ferrin
Clown, Cliff Saunders
Performances: Now through October 14, The Huntington mainstage, Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Avenue, Boston, Mass.
Box Office: 617-266-0800 or www.huntingtontheatre.org
Check your worries at the door and be prepared to laugh out loud if you plan on seeing Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps at the Huntington Theatre Company now through October 14. This riotously funny send-up of the classic 1935 suspense thriller that put the famed British director on the road to Hollywood is getting its American premiere in Boston prior to a December 28 opening on Broadway. Judging by the gleeful audience reaction on press night, The 39 Steps could be in for a successful New York run.
Starring the debonair British actor Charles Edwards who originated the role of reluctant hero Richard Hannay in the London West End production, The 39 Steps also features Jennifer Ferrin playing the three main women involved in Hannay's adventurous journey and two men, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, enacting all of the play's remaining 100+ roles. Watching this nimble cast execute split-second character changes, raucous vaudeville-style slapstick, and perfectly timed sight gags, one could easily suggest an alternative title for this comedy: Breathless.
All of the iconic elements from Hitchcock's original movie are present – the sultry, deep-voiced femme fatale who is mysteriously murdered in Hannay's apartment; the narrow escapes and nail-biting chase sequences atop a Flying Dutchman train and across the Scottish moors; the stunning crash of a bi-plane that also manages to suggest a scene from a later Hitchcock thriller, North by Northwest; the irritatingly self-righteous blonde who becomes handcuffed to Hannay in his hotel room; and the climactic execution of the villainous spy ring leader Professor Jordan in his loge box at London's Palladium theatre. How these sprawling movie moments are successfully translated to the stage by director Maria Aitken is what makes The 39 Steps so clever and surprisingly funny. The madcap antics of the cast combined with side-splittingly inventive uses of sets, props, costumes, lighting and sound effects elevate what might have been a pleasant but simple movie spoof to a dizzying theatrical celebration.
Cast members are pitch perfect in their twisted interpretations of Hitchcock's 1930s cinema realism. Edwards is the consummate Everyman who inadvertently becomes the savior of England when he manages to thwart the evil spy ring that threatens the country's military security. His Hannay is dry, slightly befuddled, and prone to a bit of manly exasperation when challenged by the headstrong women who cross his path. He is also master of the subtle double-take when deliberately telegraphing danger in the exaggerated vaudeville style.
As the ill-fated Marlene Dietrich-like Annabella Schmidt, the haughty blonde trouble maker cum love interest Pamela, and the earthy Scottish farmer's wife Margaret, Jennifer Ferrin is delightfully mercurial. She juggles her comic and romantic moments with ease and adds an understated lusty spark to her various personae.
It's the dynamic duo of Burton and Saunders who keep this free-wheeling comic farce moving at its breakneck pace, however. They transform before our very eyes playing men, women, Brits, Scots, Germans, country folk, train officials, policemen, villains, serving men, hotel proprietors, and the amazing Mr. Memory and his set-up man. They throw off one-liners like firecrackers and break the fourth wall with scene changes that themselves become part of the show's carefully orchestrated anarchy. They do yeoman's work in creating a parade of outlandish characters that are completely distinct from one another.
The action of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is fast and furious. Be prepared to pay close attention. There are delightful winks to many of the director's other memorable movies, and, in true Hitchcock fashion, there is even a cameo appearance by the great man himself.The 39 Steps, which won a 2007 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy, is scheduled for a limited run at the American Airlines Theatre January 10 through March 16, 2008. Previews begin December 28. Producers are the Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Bob Boyett, Harriet Leve/Ron Nicynski, Stephanie P. McClelland, Fiery Angel Ltd. and the Huntington Theatre Company
You won't be seeing a more clever show this season, or any time soon, than the Huntington Theatre's production of "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps."
What makes it so clever is that it recreates Hitchcock's classic 1935 espionage film, which is based on a 1915 novel by John Buchan, and it does it with only four actors and a very simple set.
The actors play more than 100 roles in this slapstick, tongue-in-cheek version of the film, while some extraordinarily brilliant strokes of stagecraft are used to imitate Hitchcock's cinematography. The play was adapted by Patrick Barlow based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon.
The show opens with the dapper 37-year-old Richard Hannay heading off for what he assumed would be an innocent night at a West End theater only to find himself caught up in an international thriller that he can't begin to understand, with threats to the very existence of Great Britain.
A woman he meets at the theater turns out to be a spy who asks to seek refuge for the evening in Hannay's apartment. Right away there's a clever visual moment and just as clever a verbal one. When the spy, Annabella Schmidt, tells Hannay there are two enemy agents standing beneath a lamppost, we see them carry the lamppost onstage with them, and they continue to play on the theme. Later when he offers to sleep in a chair so she can have the only bed in his apartment, she reluctantly says, "As you wish," as if he has passed up a great opportunity.
The show is packed with visual playfulness. The most visually pleasing involves steam and sound effects creating the sense of a train pulling out of a London railway station as a miniature red train emerges out of the steam and rolls across the stage floor.
A chase across the top of the Flying Scotsman train is created by men leaping from trunk to trunk while they wave the tails of their coats behind them to give the impression of the wind created by the speeding train.
Soon metal ladders are used to give the sense of a bridge that Hannay dangles under before falling into the river below. Later, Hannay climbs out a window by simply pulling a loose window frame around him. The visual and verbal gags go on and on and include references to several other Hitchcock films.
Charles Edwards creates a very dashing Hannay with lots of romantic appeal while letting nothing get in the way of his determination to save Britain. One could say that Hannay is the prototype for James Bond. Mr. Edwards is excellent as the driving force of the show and holding the story together. He was in the original London production.
Jennifer Ferrin gives rich variety to the three different women she plays — Annabella Schmidt, the spy who sets the story in motion; Margaret, an adoring country bumpkin; and Pamela, a woman who vacillates in her attitude towards Hannay and ends up being handcuffed to him as the story reaches its tensest.
One of the funnier and sexier moments occurs when she takes off her stockings with the hand that's handcuffed to his hand, at a time when she isn't feeling particularly romantic towards him.
This leaves the other two actors Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders to pick up the countless roles that populate the story. They slip effortlessly from one role to another and are particularly funny rotating through characters on a train by changing hats and accents. Mr. Saunders is also hilarious as a Scottish politician with the impossible name of McCorquodale, who addresses an imaginary on-stage audience in such a quiet voice that nobody can hear him while he laughs uproariously at his own jokes.
All of this cleverness is certainly impressive, and it may tickle your fancy. Director Maria Aitken certainly keeps it moving along at a rapid clip. But the cleverness calls so much attention to itself that it's not likely to draw you into the story and engage you, any more than the plot itself, which is so episodic and unpredictable that you just have to sit back and let it take its course.
The show ends up making for an amusing but fairly thin and not entirely satisfying evening. We tend to get our greatest pleasure in the theater — at least I do — not from being impressed by the cleverness and skill of others, but from having our imaginations engaged so that we become active participants in the creative process, forgetting that there's any divide between us in the audience and them on the stage.
But you won't be sorry that you saw this show. It goes down pretty easily, and it's certainly easier catching it here than in New York when it moves to Broadway. You may just wish you felt a little more nourished by it.
"Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps"
What: A clever slapstick spoof of Hitchcock's classic 1935 film.
Where: The Huntington Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave., Boston.
When: Through Oct. 14.
Tickets: Range from $15 to $75 and can be purchased by calling (617) 266-0800 or by going online to www.huntingtontheatre.org.