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November 11, 2009

The 39 Steps

by Jesse North

Usually when I can’t follow the plotline of a show, that doesn’t bode well for how I feel about the production as a whole. Bizarrely enough, this is not the case with The 39 Steps. I was incredibly engaged the entire show, and I think I smiled the entire way through. I also didn’t know what the heck was going on. I hope that’s not an insult to writer John Buchan; it shouldn’t be. What he lacks in story clarity, he and director Maria Aitken make up for in stage directions and concept.

The 39 Steps is based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title and follows Richard Hannay (Sean Mahon), a detective, a college professor, a mystery writer—I don’t know!—on a mad chase. The police are after him for the death of a strange woman, Annabella Schmidt, who was murdered in his home. Earlier in the night, the mysterious Annabella (who fired a gun in a theater and followed Richard home) yammered on to Richard about some kind of something, her search for this thing called “the 39 steps.” I don’t really know what she was talking about, but it sounded serious. Anyway, she ends up with a knife in her back and a freaked Richard takes off into the night, and somewhere along the way decides to continue Annabella’s search for the 39 steps.

But wait; this all sounds way too serious. The 39 Steps is a comical mystery (comystery?) similar to the style of Monty Python. The show is incredibly inventive; a cast of only four actors portrays 150 characters, using tricks such as shadows, quick costume changes, and abstract scenery. What’s delightful about this show is that it reaches out to an audience that knows how to use its imagination.

The fantastic four is comprised of Mahon, Jill Paice, Jeffrey Kuhn, and Arnie Burton and they might be among the hardest working actors on Broadway. The play only runs an hour and 45 minutes, yet it still has an intermission because the actors would probably faint without one—they’re doing so much on stage at all times. In one memorable scene at a train station, the utterly fantastic Kuhn and Burton switch between conductor, porter, police officer and maybe even a couple other characters—I couldn’t keep track—using only different hats to distinguish them. Yes, we see them switching off the hats—it isn’t a big surprise how they’re toggling between characters. But the comedy is that they’re able to jump nimbly from each character’s unique voice and mannerisms and literally juggle the hats. In another visually riotous scene, a silk screen curtains the stage and is lit from behind. With Mahon standing behind it and the light blasting his shadow monstrously large on the silk screen, he is chased by puppet airplanes (much larger in shadow), in a wonderful spoof of Hitchcock’s other classic, North By Northwest.

Paice is hilariously eccentric as Annabelle. She kills every time she overstates Richard’s name with her hybrid Russian-German accent: “Reee-CHARD!” It’s too bad Annabelle doesn’t last longer; Paice’s two other characters aren’t as memorable. Mahon is quite adept as Richard. He plays the handsome detective/college professor/mystery writer with smug buffoonery. Yet I did feel he lacked a necessary charm for the role, a quality that doesn’t come hand in hand with good looks.

It really is Kuhn and Burton who rule the show. Although the effects and visual gimmicks are basically one with the performances, strip away all that and their kooky character portrayals would stand on their own for hours on end. These two are timeless actors: their work is just as effective now as it would be if we shoved them in a time machine and sent them back to Vaudeville.

Aitken’s direction of The 39 Steps is a marvel. This is a tight production with a million opportunities to fall apart. The effects from elaborate to minimal all work. Even just the actors’ movements are so often in beautiful syncopation with each other’s that it feels like they must all be tied up to the same marionette strings. It’s clear that Aitken’s the one holding them.

What’s been remarkable about productions that have come to Broadway in recent years is that many have asked the audiences to suspend their belief and take an artistic leap of faith with them. Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, and Equus have used minimalist sets and dared the audience to imagine the world that surrounds the characters, instead of the production showing them. These plays differ from The 39 Steps in that they don’t have a lot of action. The 39 Steps sees its characters running on top of trains, being chased by airplanes, and interacting with 149 other characters. This play goes a step further in the minimalist mindset and asks the audience now to imagine the action. Why should the actors be the only ones to do the work?

Editor’s note: I was invited to see The 39 Steps and did not rush it. There is a student rush policy for the show. Tickets are $26.50 each and go on sale two hours prior to the performance. Two tickets per ID.

Play: B+

Joan Marcus

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