Best of Ferrin's trio of parts, however, is a painfully shy Scottish
crofter's wife played in the Hitchcock film by a young Peggy Ashcroft in her
second screen role. Wide-eyed with questions about the wicked glamour of
London women ("Is it troo that all the leedies peent thar toonails?"), she
helps Richard escape through a window -- actually just a handheld wooden
frame -- in one of the show's funniest sequences
Jennifer Ferrin does triple duty, playing a hilariously over-the-top
Annabella as well as a more demure Scottish matron and a dazzling but rather
dim blonde who falls instantly for Richard but nonetheless feels compelled
to report him to the authorities.
Ms. Ferrin, who plays the several romantic interests in the story, does evoke the prototypical Hitchcock blonde in her portrayal of Pamela, a part originated by
Madeleine Carroll. But mostly she’s doing vaudeville variations on classic love interests: exotic Mata Hari type, wistful country girl.
Jennifer Ferrin plays the three very different female roles, and she's
excellent in each. Philadelphia Inquirer
Similarly, Ferrin -- a former Daytime Emmy nominee for her work on As The World Turns -- has been styled as an almost perfect reincarnation of Madeleine Carroll, who played Pamela. More importantly, she so deftly distinguishes all three of her characters, you might not realize they're being played by the same actress.
Jennifer Ferrin has just the right snarky ingenue spirit as the spy, the lonely farmer's wife and the independent woman who ends up handcuffed to the accused murderer and hero.
Edwards and Ferrin are at their best in these moments, almost playing it straight. They let the language work its magic instead of relying on exaggeration and aggressive underlining that marks much of the other, sillier bits of comedy. It's that persistent winking at the material that sometimes dilutes the comedy's effectiveness. Associated Press
Jennifer Ferrin does terrific work in several female roles, including a thickly accented German spy and the icy blond heroine played so memorably by Madeleine Carroll in the film. Reuters/Hollywood Reporter
in association with
Bob Boyett, Harriet
Nicynski, Stewart F.
Denoff, Marek J.
Edward Snape for
Fiery Angel, of a
play in two acts
adapted by Patrick
Barlow, based on an
original concept by
Simon Corble and
Nobby Dimon, based
on the novel by John
Buchan. Directed by
Man No. 1 - Cliff
Man No. 2 - Arnie
Richard Hannay -
Pamela, Margaret -
The best loved of
Alfred Hitchcock's early
British films and
perhaps the ripest
target for parody, "The
39 Steps" set the mold
for the director's many
thrillers about innocent
men embroiled in foul
play and on the run. It
also established perhaps
the most mischievous
sense of humor in 20th
filmmaking. That raw
Barlow, director Maria
Aitken and their
crackerjack cast with a
balloon to be blown up
and burst repeatedly in
this eccentric London
import, presented on
Broadway by Roundabout.
The inspiration for
page-turner follows a
dapper fugitive dashing
from London across the
Scottish Highlands and
back again while he
attempts to save Britain
from an enemy spy ring.
The central joke in this
frenetic spoof is the
utter unsuitability of
the material -- with its
high-speed chases across
moors, rivers, an
elevated bridge and the
roof of a moving train
-- for stage
The dated conventions
of '30s filmmaking, the
outmoded acting styles,
preposterous accents and
the loopy dialogue
played straight all
combine with a
performance mode that
blends mime, slapstick
and Monty Python-esque
drollery in a brand of
film sendup that's more
commonly the domain of
television, from "The
Carol Burnett Show" to
"French & Saunders." The
kicker is that it's all
performed by a
multitasking cast of
four with only a handful
of props and minimal set
Stepping into Robert
Donat's shoes as Richard
Hannay, the unflappable,
pipe-smoking hero with
the pencil-thin mustache
and flawless hair,
Charles Edwards balances
a brow perpetually
knitted in earnest
contemplation, a stiff
upper lip and a
determinedly set jaw
with the slyest of
double takes (he's the
sole holdover from the
London cast). In
Edwards' perf, Hannay's
anxiety in even the
stickiest situations is
always tempered by the
self-satisfaction and a
hint of dimness.
Edwards' aplomb is
placed in deliciously
dry relief by the
characterizations of his
assumes a ludicrous
sauerkraut accent and an
air of campy high
dudgeon as Annabella
Schmidt, who gets a
knife in her back early
mission with her dying
words: "Alt na Shellach!"
She next shows up aboard
the Flying Scotsman in
the Madeleine Carroll
role as cool blonde
Pamela, whose repeated
attempts to turn Richard
in cannot douse the
Best of Ferrin's trio
of parts, however, is a
painfully shy Scottish
crofter's wife played in
the Hitchcock film by a
young Peggy Ashcroft in
her second screen role.
Wide-eyed with questions
about the wicked glamour
of London women ("Is it
troo that all the
leedies peent thar
toonails?"), she helps
Richard escape through a
window -- actually just
a handheld wooden frame
-- in one of the show's
The dozens of
remaining roles are
filled with tireless
energy and an endless
assortment of comic tics
by the hilarious Arnie
Burton and Cliff
Saunders, aided by
changes often limited to
just a hat or a coat.
Burton and Saunders
get some of the choicest
bits of silliness to
play, notably a music
hall presenter and his
human encyclopedia act,
Mr. Memory, in the
opening and climactic
scenes; a pair of
salesmen; an incognito
espionage figure and his
wife; and an innkeeper
couple who provide
shelter for handcuffed
Richard and Pamela.
Burton and Saunders'
dexterity as they
simultaneously play a
cop, a paperboy, a train
porter and the underwear
salesmen at Edinburgh
Station is a high point.
But it's hard to top
Saunders in a daffy riff
on the film as an
cackling silently at his
Working with movement
directors Toby Sedgwick
and Christopher Bayes,
Aitken is fully aware
that speed and precision
are of the essence. When
the show loses steam,
its longueurs usually
echo those of the film,
notably Richard and
Pamela's overnight hotel
The real key to its
success, however, is
that the thriller
element is entirely
secondary to the laughs
milked from shoestring
redefines the term
Backed by nifty
lighting tricks from
Kevin Adams, Peter
designs are at their
cleverest in the
chase, using only a
series of traveling
trunks and a smoke
machine; in a parade of
bagpipe players; when
Richard is ushered ever
deeper inside a large
Scottish house via the
and during his pursuit
across the moors. That
scene is staged as
shadow theater on a
backlit sheet, complete
with the obligatory
Hitchcock cameo, another
from the Loch Ness
monster and an homage to
"North by Northwest."
Jokey nods to other
Hitchcock films are
dropping such titles as
"The Lady Vanishes,"
"The Man Who Knew Too
Much," "Strangers on a
Train" and "Rear Window"
into the dialogue and
tossing in visual
references or Bernard
Herrmann music cues that
evoke "Psycho" (a shower
curtain doubles as a
and "The Birds." Hitch's
hoariest editing trick
-- the overlapping of a
housekeeper's scream as
Annabella's body with
the whistle of the
departing train -- earns
a huge laugh.
Sure, Mel Brooks
territory in "High
Anxiety," and vintage
Hitchcock has perhaps
been more frequently
plundered for parody
than the work of any
other filmmaker. But as
a giddy display of
that makes a virtue of
its minimal means, "The
39 Steps" is an
Sets and costumes,
lighting, Kevin Adams;
sound, Mic Pool; dialect
coach, Stephen Gabis;
original movement, Toby
producer, Sydney Beers;
manager, Nevin Hedley.
Opened Jan. 15, 2008.
Reviewed Jan. 11.
Running time: 1 HOUR, 45
'39 Steps': Hitchcock thriller morphs into a hilarious spoof
By Elysa Gardner, USA Today
NEW YORK — Call it the little comedy that could. The 39 Steps (*** out of four), an adaptation of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, began its theatrical life at a small English theater way off the West End more than a decade ago.
The version that opened Tuesday at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre, via the Roundabout Theatre Company, won the U.K.'s Olivier Award for best new comedy just last year. This London
transfer, featuring a script by Patrick Barlow — who expanded on the original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, inspired by the John Buchan novel upon which the movie was based — retains a bare-bones ingenuity. Barlow at once mines Hitchcock's dry wit and breezily sends up the spy-thriller genre.
There are only four actors, none of them marquee names, each more than equipped to handle the physical and expressive demands of slapstick humor — not to mention some serious role-juggling.
The plot follows Richard Hannay, a dashing bachelor who visits a music hall and meets the glamorous, mysterious Annabella Schmidt. Annabella ends up getting murdered in Richard's apartment, and Richard ends up on the run, dodging policemen, pilots and a professor — and getting entangled with another gal, literally at one point.
Peter McKintosh's lean, clever set design and vaudevillian costumes take us from fashionable London
to the Scottish moors and enable Barlow and director Maria Aitken to slyly reference the movie, using low-tech devices such as stepladders and dry ice to re-create chase scenes.
Under Aitken's brisk guidance, the cast is similarly resourceful. As Richard, Charles Edwards — who appeared in the original London
production at the small but highly regarded Tricycle Theatre — looks and acts every inch the mock gentleman/hero. Jennifer Ferrin does triple duty, playing a hilariously over-the-top Annabella as well as a more demure Scottish matron and a dazzling but rather dim blonde who falls instantly for Richard but nonetheless feels compelled to report him to the authorities.
Ferrin has it easy compared with Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, who share dozens of supporting parts, sometimes shifting from character to character in the blink of an eye or the switching of hats. A sinister German, a crusty Scot, an eccentric couple, a pair of underwear salesmen — Burton and Saunders are convincing, or at least amusing, in all guises.
39 Steps isn't likely to earn a Tony Award to accompany its Olivier, especially given the unusual assortment of weighty new plays that opened on Broadway last fall. But it's an impeccably crafted trifle, a lot tastier than many of the richer confections that have turned up in commercial theater lately.
It’s all too easy to identify with Richard Hannay as he first appears in “The 39 Steps,” the absurdly enjoyable, gleefully theatrical riff on Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film. True, the odds are that you’re not as deeply, fatuously handsome as Richard (Charles Edwards), or as square of jaw, clipped of diction or cocked of eyebrow.
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
From left, Charles Edwards, Jennifer Ferrin, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders in "The 39 Steps."
Still, there’s something about Richard’s restless ennui in the first scene of this production, which opened on Tuesday night at the American Airlines Theater, that rings loud and true with New Yorkers sinking into the gray oatmeal of January in the city.
Bored with the tedium of his life, Richard is also fed up with newspapers bearing tales of “elections and wars and rumors of wars.” He longs for “something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless.” His jaw unclenches for a “Eureka!” moment. “I know!” he says. “I’ll go to the theater!”
On the evidence of “The 39 Steps,” directed by Maria Aitken and performed by a cast of four that seems like a cast of thousands, this is very sound advice. Adapted by Patrick Barlow from both the classic spy movie and the John Buchan novel of 1915, this fast, frothy exercise in legerdemain is throwaway theater at its finest. And that’s no backhanded compliment.
A perfect soufflé, after all, requires a precise and confident chef. While the small, heavy-duty ensemble — rounded out by Arnie Burton, Jennifer Ferrin and Cliff Saunders — exudes a breezy effortlessness, its words and movements are governed by an intricate master plan that the plot’s hapless double agents and policemen would do well to emulate.
Consider, for example, how Mr. Burton and Mr. Saunders, who shift identities faster than a field of presidential candidates, manage to embody four to six characters within the same seconds-long fraction of a scene, tossing headgear and coats to each other like circus jugglers. Or how Mr. Edwards and Ms. Ferrin walk a trembling tightrope between archness and ardor.
Or how a few battered trunks morph into the interior of — and then the roof of — a speeding train, or a cluster of humdrum chairs into a getaway car. By evening’s end, you’ll have nearly forgotten that the show’s set and costumes (the province of the inspirationally frugal Peter McKintosh, with lighting to match by Kevin Adams) are nearly as spartan as those of a bargain-basement production of “Our Town.”
The show was officially called “John Buchan’s The 39 Steps” when I saw it in London. It is now more accurately titled “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.” Aside from its prologue and epilogue, the show hews to the script of the film, which took greater liberties with the Buchan novel than this production does with the movie.
Not that Ms. Aitken and Mr. Barlow’s version (based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon), which won the 2007 Olivier Award for best new comedy in London, have delivered a frame-by-frame breakdown of a Hitchcock masterpiece that would appeal to semioticians. Yes, the show is peppered with gratifyingly groan-making visual, verbal and aural references (via Mic Pool’s Bernard Herrmann-quoting sound design) to other Hitchcock films.
(Loved those “North by Northwest” shadow-puppet crop dusters.)
But the appeal here is ultimately more to theater aficionados than to movie buffs, and you don’t need to have seen the movie to appreciate the accomplishment of the show. Ms. Aitken and company are using their cinematic template to celebrate the art of instant illusion-making that is theater. Much of the show’s pleasure comes from being in on the magician’s tricks even as, on some primitive level, you accept them.
There is wit to spare in the original screenplay for “The 39 Steps” (by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay and Alma Reville, a k a Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock), and many of the funniest — and more surprisingly, the raciest — lines in Mr. Barlow’s play come directly from the movie. This “39 Steps” isn’t using its source material as a satiric target but as an accomplice.
The performers largely avoid direct impersonation of the film’s cast members. The masterly Mr. Edwards, the one holdover from the London cast, isn’t reincarnating Robert Donat, the suave actor who created the part. Instead he’s channeling a whole tradition of gentlemanly but virile heroes. (I don’t think it’s just because Richard is Canadian that the screen figure Mr. Edwards most reminds me of is the cartoon Mountie Dudley Do-Right.)
Ms. Ferrin, who plays the several romantic interests in the story, does evoke the prototypical Hitchcock blonde in her portrayal of Pamela, a part originated by Madeleine Carroll. But mostly she’s doing vaudeville variations on classic love interests: exotic Mata Hari type, wistful country girl.
Playing everybody else, and that’s a lot of else, Mr. Saunders (who is a natural offbeat clown) and Mr. Burton are asked to stretch their comic muscles to the snapping point, as well as hefting much of the furniture that coalesces so unexpectedly into all sorts of landscapes. They never appear to sweat it. The exasperation they occasionally show is in the script. The actors themselves seem to be having a helluva good time.
As does the audience. For in addition to providing the relief of being committedly silly in a season of fine dramas about unhappy families, “The 39 Steps” stands out for its plying of minimal resources to maximal effect.
The creators of the bloated spectacles “The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein” and “Disney’s The Little Mermaid” should take a hard look at “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” which packs a lot less ego into its brand-name title. With its cast of four and a brick-wall-backed set, this show flies lightly into an ether of escapism, while its over-produced peers remain stuck leadenly on the ground.
Adapted by Patrick Barlow, based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and the book by John Buchan; directed by Maria Aitken; sets and costumes by Peter McKintosh; lighting by Kevin Adams; sound by Mic Pool; production management, Aurora Productions; production stage manager, Nevin Hedley; general managers, Rebecca Habel and Roy Gabay; associate producer, Sydney Beers; associate artistic director, Scott Ellis. Presented by the Roundabout Theater Company, Todd Haimes, artistic director; Harold Wolpert, managing director; Julia C. Levy, executive director; in association with Bob Boyett, Harriet Newman Leve/Ron Nicynski, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Manocherian Golden Productions, Olympus Theatricals/Douglas Denoff and Marek J. Cantor/Pat Addiss; and the Huntington Theater Company, Nicholas Martin, artistic director; Michael Maso, managing director; and Edward Snape for Fiery Angel. At the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; (212) 719-1300. Through March 23. Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes.
WITH: Arnie Burton (Man #2), Charles Edwards (Richard Hannay), Jennifer Ferrin (Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret) and Cliff Saunders (Man #1).
NEW YORK - I was caught wholly off-guard during the first act of The 39 Steps, the goofy adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's revered and sophisticated 1935 spy thriller that opened last night on Broadway: It bordered on mockery. I couldn't figure why anyone would take such a smart movie and turn it into a shtick-a-minute lampoon.
The Roundabout Theatre Company production is burlesque one moment, melodrama the next - and, always, self-ridicule.
By Act 2, Patrick Barlow's adaptation of the film, and the John Buchan novel on which Hitchcock based it, came clear to me: It's a tribute, in an offhand way, to the film master and to his portfolio. The show is clever and at the same time silly, a dogged spoof of a 73-year-old film that assumes we love, and know, the original. It wears itself out by being technically perfect and emotionally empty. How many overarched eyebrows, supercharged interchanges, and purposely telegraphed laff-lines can we handle in the course of a couple of hours?
You begin to expect all the unexpected stage business from the fabulous cast of four actors who play every role in the film - and I mean every role, because even the bit parts and throwaway lines show up on stage, including the momentary appearance of Hitchcock, among silhouetted stick puppets used at one point.
The script employs, I'd say, 85 percent of the original, and the best way to see the show is to rent the movie and watch it immediately beforehand. The 39 Steps not only picks itself apart, it refers to Hitchcock's other work: A moment under a waterfall (here, a shaking white curtain), which is key in the film, becomes Psycho's shower scene; a sign for a Scottish village is overrun with The Birds.
The production, imported from London, is full of these amusing Oh, look! moments. Director Maria Aitken supplies an arsenal of rat-a-tat physical stage gags, which employ everything from different hats for quick character changes to an unfurled cloth representing a stream to a windowpane that an actor carries, then crawls through.
I found myself admiring The 39 Steps with a sort of academic respect for its technical brilliance - this includes Mic Pool's on-target sound effects, Kevin Adams' lighting, and Peter McKintosh's do-it-yourself set, which the actors maneuver to endless advantage. But I didn't find myself in hysterics, which all this intends.
Charles Edwards plays Richard Hannay, the everyday guy who is dragged into a spy adventure, and he's dashing and agile and always sure you know that this is all a joke. Jennifer Ferrin plays the three very different female roles, and she's excellent in each. Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton play everyone else, and I hope they're being paid by the character; they are hands-down the most versatile character actors currently on Broadway.
HITCHCOCKIAN THRILLS & SPILLS ADD UP TO SPOOF POSITIVE
By CLIVE BARNES
January 16, 2008 -- THE great Spanish playwright Calderon once described drama as "a plank and a passion."
I don't know how much passion there is in the Roundabout Theatre's delightful version of "The 39 Steps" - after Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie of the same name, based on John Buchan's 1915 spy thriller - but the plank is truly in place in this inventively astonishing, stripped-down comedy, adapted by Patrick Barlow and staged, as in London's West End, by Maria Aitken.
The play has at least 60 or so characters, here condensed to a cast of four: the hero, Richard Hannay, played by Charles Edwards; three women (Jennifer Ferrin) and the rest played, in dizzyingly rapid succession, by Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders.
The sets and costumes by Peter McKintosh bring a fresh dimension to the word "basic." A few tables, a telephone, four or five chairs, four highly important trunks, door frames to go through, window frames to slide through, a pair of handcuffs, guns, and smoke, lots and lots of stage smoke, most of it pretending to be Scots mist.
The resultant play is a marvelous spoof of the movie, translating Hitchcock's thrills, spills and visuals into elementary stage effects - even the famous train chase over the top of The Flying Scotsman express, and the dangling hero's scene on Edinburgh's Forth Bridge.
The play's creators have affectionately pushed Hitchcock's brilliance - watch for various homages to such movies as "The Birds" and "The Lady Vanishes" - into some riotous realm of satire, without losing its essentially Hitchcockian flavor.
Aitken, though ultimately in charge of all the fun and games, is much indebted to her actors - Edwards, Ferrin and her two protean clowns, Burton and Saunders.
Richard Hannay was the original square-jawed, tight-lipped English hero, who came from the British Empire and culminated in Bond - James Bond - and Bond's later spy inversion, Sir Michael Caine's Harry Palmer.
Today we see Bond as an action hero with an accent, while poor old Hannay is somewhat of a joke. And it's a joke handsomely played by Edwards, the one refugee from the London production, with just the right pipe-clenching sense of incredulity, while Ferrin makes a smoothly bewildered heroine.
But, as it must be, the real jokes are with the clowns, sent in with virtuoso versatility by Burton and Saunders.
And what of those damned 39 steps? Hitchcock, as was his custom in searching for a plot entry, would have probably called them the story's "McGuffin." So let's leave them at that.
THE 39 STEPS American Airlines Theatre, 237 W. 42nd St.; (212) 719-1300.
The business of spoofing films on stage is a particularly tricky one, as anyone who saw Debbie Does Dallas can attest, so kudos are decidedly due to adaptor Patrick Barlow and director Maria Aitken for transforming Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 thriller The 39 Steps, now on stage at the Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, into a highly amusing theatrical event that will both satisfy those audience members who have never seen the film and delight those who are familiar with its cinematic predecessor.
True, this 105-minute work -- which originated with John Buchan's little-known novel -- more often induces smiles than real guffaws; but there are moments of sheer physical genius here that are cause for spontaneous applause, and precious few lapses into sophomoric humor or, worse yet, boredom. Part of its success can be traced to the fact that the play -- which was first seen in London and then came stateside to Boston's Huntington Theatre -- hews rather closely to the movie's screenplay, even lifting large chunks of dialogue. The heightening for laughs is done judiciously, while making sure the story remains reasonably involving.
Indeed, the most significant changes made by Barlow are a cutesy (if arguably unnecessary) prologue and epilogue; a speech that makes all-too-explicit the villain's Nazi sympathies, and, best of all, a number of verbal and physical references to Hitchcock's later films, some of which are side-splittingly hilarious and unexpected.
Shortly after that prologue ends, Richard Hannay (Charles Edwards), a suave and somewhat bored Englishman, agrees to take home Annabella Schmidt (Jennifer Ferrin), a mysterious woman he meets at the theater. Once they're in Hannay's rented flat, she explains she's a secret agent with knowledge of an important military secret who's seeking a hiding place from two men who are after her. While Hannay initially doubts her tale, he's firmly convinced of its truth the next morning when she comes into the living room with a knife in her back.
Instantly, he's off to Scotland to try to clear his name and discover Annabella's secret -- a task that proves even harder than it first appears. Along the way, he encounters a host of characters, both good and evil -- all impersonated by Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders -- as well as two very different ladies (both impersonated by Ferrin): Pamela, a haughty young woman who twice turns Hannay into the authorities while fighting her obvious attraction for him, and Margaret, an unhappy farmer's wife who helps him escape from the police.
Edwards, the only cast member to come over from London, nicely captures Hannay's vanity, but one suspects the primary reason for his presence is his strong physical and vocal resemblance to Robert Donat, who played Hannay in the film. Similarly, Ferrin -- a former Daytime Emmy nominee for her work on As The World Turns -- has been styled as an almost perfect reincarnation of Madeleine Carroll, who played Pamela. More importantly, she so deftly distinguishes all three of her characters, you might not realize they're being played by the same actress.
In many ways, however, the show belongs to the lanky Burton and the rounder Saunders, whose versatility -- and ability to changes clothes extremely quickly -- is often astounding. A set piece in which the pair play six different characters in about 30 seconds, while constantly changing hats, is both breathtaking and hilarious, and Burton has almost too much fun as the bad guy, Dr. Jordan.
The show's other shining stars are set and costume designer Peter McKintosh, lighting designer Kevin Adams, and sound designer Mic Pool, who find myriad clever ways to recreate the script's numerous locales and crowd scenes, often using only a few small pieces of furniture (and one brilliant scrim).
Ultimately, Hitchcock fans may be the only ones who really need to run to The 39 Steps, but anyone who ascends them will find the climb worth the effort.
The tall, tweedy Englishman with the pencil mustache is bored - no, positively world weary - from a life of restaurants and parties and, ho-hum, in the far distance, another rumor of war. He considers doing away with himself, but stiffens his standard-issue upper lip and decides to find something to do. "Something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless. I know," he says, brightening. "I'll go to the theater!"
It is with such a mindset that "The 39 Steps," which opened last night at the Roundabout Theatre Company, is probably best enjoyed. The diversion, a West End hit that grew from a tiny regional playhouse, is an utterly pointless but physically and conceptually ingenious spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's equally foolish but stylish and dead-serious spy thriller from 1935.
In fact, given the assignment and the material, the extended sketch is as clever as it knows how to be. The dozens of characters - Brits, Scots and nascent Nazis - are all played by just three tirelessly virtuosic actors. The fourth, Charles Edwards, portrays that tweedy Englishman named Richard Hannay, who goes to a music hall and gets seduced by an exotic spy who, before she is murdered, warns him that a "top secret secret" is about to be stolen from England.
Except for the self-conscious new prologue described above, Patrick Barlow's adaptation and Maria Aitken's production are remarkably faithful to the early Hitchcock.
What makes that remarkable is that, with a few impeccably selected props and great hats, the play carries us off on one cliff-hanging chase scene after another, as the dashing Hannay dashes from London to a speeding train to the Scottish moors to a sheep farm to a handsome estate to a provincial political rally to a charming inn and the London Palladium.
Did we mention he also escapes being crushed by the collision of two biplanes and just misses an encounter with the ominously tubby outline of Hitchcock, himself?
For all the distance traveled, ultimately, this is an oddball-style piece with nowhere to go. It is part SCTV, part screwball romantic comedy, with a little of Monty Python's demented silliness and a lot of expert physical comedy, meta-jokes about Hitchcock's greatest hits and even a wink at politicians' obsession with "change."
Do we care? Not much. But there are delicious moments, especially from quick-change, fast-talking accent-artists Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton. Punched out at a Scottish police station, Saunders falls backward like a plank, flips over his head and bounces back casually to investigate a disturbance at the window. Burton, who looks a bit like Christopher Guest, finds invention within the cliches of a German disguised as an Englishman. Jennifer Ferrin has just the right snarky ingenue spirit as the spy, the lonely farmer's wife and the independent woman who ends up handcuffed to the accused murderer and hero.
And Edwards, the only holdover from the original London production, carries the Robert Donat role as if Hannay were a debonair hawk simultaneously looking for predators and for prey.
This is the sort of production in which characters carry their own window frames, through which they crawl for daring escapes. Costumes and sets, by Peter McKintosh, are a master class in doing a great deal with very little. Shadows loom and suspenseful violins scream. Everyone is extremely good at walking through invisible wind.
We cannot avoid wondering why this self-proclaimed pointless import is produced by Broadway's largest nonprofit theater, with above-the-title credit to almost a dozen other producers and Boston's Huntington Theatre. Guess it is hard times for good times all over.
THE 39 STEPS. Adapted by Patrick Barlow, directed by Maria Aitken. Roundabout Theatre Company, American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., Manhattan, through March 23. Tickets: $51.25- $96.25; 212-719-1300. Seen at Sunday afternoon preview.
Hitchcock classic '39 Steps' is now a killer spoof
Wednesday, January 16th 2008, 4:00 AM
'The 39 Steps.' Through March 23, Roundabout Theatre Co. at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. Tickets: $51.25-$96.25, (212) 719-1300.
Suspense-meister Alfred Hitchcock probably never imagined his thriller "The 39 Steps" had the makings of a hilarious comedy, but the show that opened Tuesday night at the American Airlines Theatre is a dizzy delight.
This slight but ingenious spoof retells the classic 1935 spy movie using only four actors and a mix of mime, slapstick, sight gags, melodrama and, in one particularly amusing scene, puppets.
If you know the movie (and you don't have to to enjoy this romp), the plot stays close to Hitchcock's version of John Buchan's 1915 novel. The difference is the stage adaptation by Patrick Barlow plays everything for laughs, including one stabbing and several shootings.
Charles Edwards, reprising the role he originated in London's West End production, plays Richard Hannay, an innocent man drawn into a spy ring who's falsely fingered for murder. With an eyebrow in the cocked-and-locked position and a trim mustache, Edwards is 1930s period-perfect and terrifically droll as a Regular Guy in extraordinary circumstances.
Jennifer Ferrin lends comic support and sexual oomph in three roles - a shady lady who gets the intrigue going, a lonely farmer's wife and a prissy blond who, after ratting out Hannay to the authorities, ends up handcuffed to him.
Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders play a multitude of parts, both men and women. These clowns effortlessly juggle characters, costumes and accents - sometimes within a single scene - and prove endlessly entertaining. Saunders is priceless as Mr. Memory, the music-hall performer who's the key to everything, while Burton turns devilishly evil as the spy mastermind.
It's great fun to watch classic Hitchcock scenes come alive through nothing more than simple props and theatrical magic. A high-speed chase aboard a whizzing train is brilliantly re-created with four crates, puffs of smoke, flashing lights and actors game for anything.
Fans of the legendary filmmaker will be tickled by the many clever visual and musical winks to such movies as "Rear Window," "The Birds," "Strangers on a Train" and "Psycho."
The production is inventively directed by Maria Aitken, with assistance on character movement from Toby Sedgwick and Christopher Bayes.
If "The 39 Steps" makes a misstep, it's having an intermission. Once this fast-paced fun ride leaves the station, you don't want to get off.
NEW YORK - — Studded with quick references to the titles of Alfred Hitchcock thrillers — "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window," etc. — the stage version of "The 39 Steps" employs a smart gimmick — having four actors play all the parts in this classic "wrong man" tale.
Only Charles Edwards, who headed the cast in the original London production, takes on a single role, though his Richard Hannay is onstage almost constantly. Two men, described as Clowns, shift though characters, male and female, with Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton tearing through madcap costume changes. Jennifer Ferrin, a veteran of "As the World Turns," plays three youngish female characters (Annabella, Pamela and Margaret) in impressive transformations.
The Roundabout Theatre Company presentation that opened Tuesday night at the American Airlines Theatre follows the broad outline of the esteemed 1935 Hitchcock film with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. The high points — including a leap from a train and a drop from a railway bridge — remain, strikingly staged by Maria Aitken, who maintains a breathless pacing throughout the 90-minute running time.
As the presence of the shape-shifting Clowns attests, Patrick Barlow's variation on the thriller adapted from John Buchan goes for comic effect from the start. Still, thanks to the straight playing of Edwards and Ferrin, the heart of the tale remains intact.
Peter McKintosh, who also designed the array of costumes, has set the play within a rather drab stony surround that suggests a noir "Our Town." At the outset, Barlow sends in the Clowns, who race about setting up the spare furnishings of Hannay's apartment, including a half-empty bottle of Scotch and an empty glass. Edwards, who wears the same tweedy three-piece suit throughout, begins to profess Hannay's world-weariness.
Needing something "utterly pointless" to divert himself, he elects to go to the theater, where he first witnesses the music-hall act of Mr. Memory and sees a stunning Germanic woman, Annabella Schmidt, in the box opposite to his. As Saunders' portly, bald-domed Memory comes up with astonishing answers, Annabella invites herself to Hannay's flat, where, of course, she winds up with a knife in her back.
This nasty trick of fate forces Hannay to flee, with only dim hopes of clearing himself. Before her demise, Annabella told him of a plot to smuggle "top secret and highly confidential information ... out of the country." She left him with a few clues, " a man with no top joint" to his little finger, a big house called "Alt-na-Shellack" and "the Thirty Nine Steps."
Much high jinks and character shifting ensues as the mystery unravels. As "The 39 Steps" surges forward, Hannay encounters Ferrin's Pamela and winds up handcuffed to her as they traverse the Dark Moors. One of the most amusing scenes take them to the McGarrigle Hotel, run by the two clowns. The taciturn master of the house mostly says "Aye." Both wear kilts. In the bedroom, Pamela manages to free herself from the slumbering Hannay.
At last the runaways wind up back in London, at the Palladium, where Mr. Memory again does his stuff, now watched by "the Professor" in an opposite box. Here a dummy arm, and a dummy, come into play, as Barlow and Aitken send up the Hitchcock finale.
The production employs a minimum of scenery, and some of it proves quite ingenious. At the McGarrigle, the desk behind the reception desk reverses to become a Murphy Bed, for example. Both Edwards and Ferrin would fit into a Hitchcock film, while the stout Saunders and the dark, slender Burton (who resembles Buster Keaton) are contrasting types. Saunders, who takes on a couple of drag roles, generates the most fun, while Burton shows his dark side as the sinister proto-Nazi "Professor." Overall, it adds up to a highly amusing and inventive tour de force.
THE 39 STEPS, adapted by Patrick Barlow based on a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, and based on the book by John Buchan, runs through March 23 at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York. N.Y.
As Broadway becomes more reliant on huge spectacle, this inventive adaptation of a classic film demonstrates that two planks and a passion for fun beat a soulless multimillion-dollar blockbuster any day. The 39 Steps, presented by Roundabout Theatre Company after runs in the West End and at Boston's Huntington Theatre Company, employs a versatile cast of four and an equally versatile set of props to re-create Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 thriller about international spies and British unflappability. In Maria Aitken's joyfully creative production, an empty stage becomes a speeding train, a music hall full of menace, and the desolate Scottish moors. Through clever use of hats, chairs, coats, and window frames -- and Kevin Adams' scene-setting lighting -- Hitchcock's cinematic sleight of hand is given theatrical life and lovingly satirized. Adapter Patrick Barlow drops references to other Hitch films like rain from movie-buff heaven. An intimate knowledge of the canon is not necessary, but a viewing of the original picture prior to attending will add to your enjoyment. Actors should particularly relish the theatre-games atmosphere.
Charles Edwards dashingly embodies the suave hero, a Hitchcock prototype: the man wrongfully accused, who also pops up in Saboteur, North by Northwest, and many others. Here the hapless protagonist is Richard Hannay, a rootless chap who finds himself caught in a web of murder and intrigue. Edwards manages to create a credible character while gently ribbing the conventions of suspense thrillers and polite British society. Jennifer Ferrin ably plays the three women in Hannay's adventures, clearly delineating a femme fatale spy, a cowering Scottish housewife, and the plucky heroine who winds up handcuffed to the hero.
But the real stars are Cliff Saunders, who resembles a melancholy bulldog, and large-eyed Arnie Burton. Listed in the program as Man #1 and Man #2, they zestfully limn all the other characters, sometimes switching identities within seconds. Though individually riotous as trench-coated foreign agents, Highland politicians, and sharp-tongued Cockneys, they work best in tandem, as when they play a pair of randy corset salesmen or a stiffly formal vaudeville team.
The evening sags when the action does not rely on Aitken's direction and the comedy derives principally from funny accents. There's only so much mileage you can get out of the Scottish pronunciation of house (hoose) and the Eastern European way of saying involved (in-WOL-wed). Fortunately, these flaws make for only brief lulls on this hilarious climb up The 39 Steps.
'39 Steps' gives tip of the fedora to filmmaker's spy caper
Wednesday, January 16, 2008
The 39 Steps
Where: American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York
When: Through March 23. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays
How much: $51.25-$96.25. Call (212) 719-1300 or visit roundabouttheatre.org.
NEW YORK -- No need to be a movie buff to enjoy "The 39 Steps," a clever theatricalization of a vintage Alfred Hitchcock thriller.
Sure, awareness of key moments from his 1935 British spy caper increases the fun, but the new comedy bowing yesterday at American Airlines Theatre will tickle customers who have only a casual acquaintance with Hitchcock's films.
That's because Patrick Barlow's tongue-in-cheek version offers more than a mere stage spoof based on the screenplay and earlier novel. Roundabout Theatre Company's production is entirely performed by four actors who morph into dozens of characters involved in this fast-moving saga of suspense.
Swiftly changing outfits and accents, dragging bits of scenery on and off, they achieve split-second feats of transformation -- and garner extra mirth -- whenever their efforts go somewhat askew. Watching them dash around so madly is mighty amusing.
Let's amend that. Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders are the protean actors populating the show's cast of hundreds, while Jennifer Ferrin depicts the frosty blond heroine, a simply-sweet farmer's wife and an exotic secret agent.
They all spin around Charles Edwards, who's quite busy enough, thank you, tweedily embodying his single role as one Richard Hannay, a square-jawed English gent unexpectedly plunged up to his pencil-thin mustache in homicide and espionage.
Wrongly accused of murdering a mysterious fraulein he met in a London music hall, Hannay is soon speeding on an express train to Scotland for a rendezvous in a remote country house.
The pursuing police are aboard the Highland Flyer, too, and sooner than one can say "certain death," Hannay is leaping from the roof of one coach to another even as the train barrels across the Firth of Forth bridge.
A thrilling film sequence, here it provokes laughs because the railway carriages are represented by several steamer trunks and the bridge by a couple of ladders while the actors -- flapping their trench coats to illustrate the rushing wind -- hop across the makeshift scenery.
Mic Pool's terrific sound effects and Kevin Adams' sepia-and-shadows lighting make such deliberately cheesy stagecraft appear strangely effective. Their designs help to evoke other locations, ranging from foggy Scottish moors to the London Palladium stage.
Meanwhile, Barlow's humorously deadpan script is dotted with a running gag invoking titles of other Hitchcock pictures. Of course a facsimile of the portly movie-maker makes his expected cameo appearance.
As in the film, a few scenes go a mite flat, but director Maria Aitken stages this spoof so sharply that the laughter rarely lets up. Inventive designer Peter McKintosh's not-so-barren "bare stage" and 1930s wardrobe dress up the visuals immensely.
Edwards' unflappable hero and Ferrin's femmes, fatale or otherwise, are neatly rendered characters, but biggest kudos go to Saunders and Burton, whose multitudinous portrayals are so droll.
A jaunty homage to Hitchcock, "The 39 Steps" is whirlwind funny business.
Michael Sommers may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (212) 790-4434.
This undated photo provided by Boneau/Bryan-Brown shows Jennifer Ferrin, left, and Charles Edwards in a scene from "The 39 Steps." The Roundabout Theatre Company's production is now playing at Broadway's American Airlines Theatre. (AP Photo/Boneau/Bryan-Brown, Joan Marcus)
By Michael Kuchwara
The Associated Press
January 17, 2008
NEW YORK — "The 39 Steps" leaves a lot to the imagination — which may be the best thing about this ferociously self-aware spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's cheeky 1935 cinematic thriller.
The pace is relentless, giving a whole other meaning to this "man on the run" tale, a plot line that figures in many of Hitchcock's better movies. Equally relentless are the campy sendups in the Roundabout Theatre Company production that opened Tuesday at its American Airlines Theatre.
The show, quite a hit in London, features four of the hardest-working actors on Broadway, including Charles Edwards, a leading man imported from England. Edwards, sporting a pipe and a caterpillar of a mustache, has a terrific square-jaw profile and looks great in designer Peter McKintosh's tweedy 1930s duds. And the man moves with considerable agility, much like Robert Donat in the original film, in which the debonaire Richard Hannay outwits a parade of assorted villains to foil a nefarious spy ring — and gets the girl to boot.
Three other actors, many roles
Edwards is the only actor in the show who plays one role. Jennifer Ferrin plays three parts, and two other performers, inexhaustible iron men named Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, portray everyone else, which means scores of characters.
It's not necessary to have seen the Hitchcock film to enjoy Patrick Barlow's stage version adapted not only from the movie but also from the novel by John Buchan. Yet it does add to the play's enjoyment to see how some of the movie's visually arresting moments are cleverly staged — even if the suspense is gone.
"The 39 Steps" is one of Hitchcock's early English films, featuring delightful performances all down the line — not only from Donat but also from Madeleine Carroll (as the blond precursor to Grace Kelly and others) and a touching cameo by a young Peggy Ashcroft as the unhappy wife of a severe farmer.
The dialogue between Donat and Carroll — the lines are lifted directly from the film — is a joy. The banter is borderline bawdy (well, for 1935 anyway), most notably in a room in a rural Scottish hotel where the couple is forced to spend the night together.
Edwards and Ferrin are at their best in these moments, almost playing it straight. They let the language work its magic instead of relying on exaggeration and aggressive underlining that marks much of the other, sillier bits of comedy. It's that persistent winking at the material that sometimes dilutes the comedy's effectiveness.
Burton and Saunders are marvels of quick wit and physical nimbleness. From cackling salesmen of ladies' underwear to assorted police officers to dour Scotsmen to a bit of drag (both fellows get to play at least one woman), they change fast and furiously throughout the show. At one point, Burton even pulls off playing two characters at once.
Director Maria Aitken makes do with minimal scenery and few props, propelling her actors with a fluidity that would make a choreographer proud.
The power of suggestion works particularly well in the early chase scenes as Hannay flees London after a mysterious woman is murdered in his West End flat, and he heads to Scotland to find the killer. That flight to the Highlands is one of the evening's most imaginatively staged sequences, using mime, shadow puppetry and more.
The joy of "The 39 Steps" is in watching that kind of stagecraft, seeing how Aitken and the actors make more out of less.
If you go ...
What: "The 39 Steps," adapted by Patrick Barlow from a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film and a novel by John Buchan
Starring: Charles Edwards, Jennifer Ferrin, Arnie Burton, Cliff Saunders
Directed by: Maria Aitken
Where: American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., New York City
NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Much like ill-fated Everest challenger George Mallory, the creators of "The 39 Steps" seem to have concocted this stage adaptation of the classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film because it was there.
This four-performer theatrical vaudeville has little reason for being and feels all too similar to the many tongue-in-cheek film-to-stage adaptations that have preceded it. But the undeniable cleverness of its execution makes it a thoroughly entertaining if ultimately superfluous exercise.
Currently enjoying a hit run on London's West End, the show is unlikely to enjoy comparable success with American audiences, if only because the source material doesn't quite have the same familiarity on these shores.
Patrick Barlow's adaptation retains all of the crucial scenes from the film, rendered in often ingenious ways. The plot centers on the desperate efforts of suave Canadian Richard Hannay (Charles Edwards, the sole British transplant) to thwart a nefarious spy ring while simultaneously avoid being captured by the police who suspect him of the murder of a mysterious young woman who died in his apartment.
Thus, director Maria Aitken (aided by two "movement creators") provides ingenious, low-tech stage equivalents of such cinematic episodes as a chase above the cars of a moving train, a pursuit through the Scottish highlands and the efforts of the hero to hide amid group of parading bagpipers. The show even manages to incorporate an amusing version of the famous cameo by the rotund director himself.
While the production ultimately is unable to sustain its infectious giddiness for nearly two hours, the fast pacing and the hardworking efforts of the talented ensemble provide many fun moments along the way.
The dapper Edwards, clad in a stylish tweed suit and arching his eyebrows to great comic effect, delivers a wonderfully droll comic performance as the desperate hero. Jennifer Ferrin does terrific work in several female roles, including a thickly accented German spy and the icy blond heroine played so memorably by Madeleine Carroll in the film.
Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders play the remainder of the nearly three dozen other roles, transforming themselves via quick changes in consistently hilarious fashion.
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company in association with Bob Boyett, Harriet Newman Leve/Ron Nieynski, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Manocherian Golden Prods., Olympus Theatricals/Douglas Denoff, Marek J. Cantor/Pat Addiss and the Huntington Theatre Company and Edward Snape for Fiery Angel.
Man No. 1: Cliff Saunders
Man No. 2: Arnie Burton
Richard Hannay: Charles Edwards
Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret: Jennifer Ferrin
Adapted by: Patrick Barlow; Based on an original concept by: Simon Corble, Nobby Dimon; Director: Maria Aitken; Set/costume designer: Peter McKintosh; Lighting designer: Kevin Adams; Sound designer: Mic Pool.
Seen on Broadway: By far the cleverest stage-to-screen adaptation I’ve seen of late is the British import The 39 Steps, a Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines Theatre. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film classic, based on John Buchan’s novel of between-world-wars spy games, has several well-remembered setpieces, including an exciting pursuit on a train and the stiff-upper-lipped hero and heroine making an awkward escape while handcuffed together. The show replicates these, and the rest besides, with all of four performers playing two dozen or so roles and some prop furniture, cannily choreographed by director Maria Aitken. The rest is stage magic in affectionately satirical take on the story, fizzily written by Patrick Barlow. Setting the tone is Charles Edwards, in a pitch-perfect evocation of film star Robert Donat as accidental adventurer Richard Hannay; pivoting and pinwheeling around him are leading lady Jennifer Ferrin, in different guises, and an amazingly adept Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton, listed in the Playbill as Man #1 and Man #2 but playing many other men, and a few women, besides.
Peter McKintosh’s unit set, hinting at a silver-screen London of 70 years ago and drenched in fog, is itself transformed into different environments, from the theatre where the action begins to a cross-islands chase, depicted via a hilariously illuminated scrim that reveals a Hitchcock cameo (the adaptation roams freely through the director’s canon). LD Kevin Adams does sterling work, funnily but convincingly suggesting numerous locales with pinpricks and outbursts of light, which McKintosh grounds with an array of period costume changes—the hat-switching gag between Saunders and Burton, as they play six different characters in a matter of seconds, is terrific comic theatre. Mic Pool accents the bits with a splendid, enveloping sound design. The breakneck pace achieved in Act I loses steam during the intermission, suggesting that the piece—a long-running hit abroad—might have been further tightened and the interval eliminated. Not that the actors didn’t earn a rest. But too much of a good thing is still a good thing, and The 39 Steps highly recommended for its spoof stagecraft.