A finely tuned blizzard
TheatreWorks' whirlwind Hitchcock parody features crack comic timing and theatrical invention
In 1935, a young Alfred Hitchcock gave the moviegoing public a taste of things to come with his adaptation of John Buchan's novel "The 39 Steps." With its reluctant though exceptionally dashing hero, its enigmatic women, its harrowing chase sequences and its razor-close escapes, "The 39 Steps" embodied many of the elements that came to define the great director's style.
Seventy years later, English actor and playwright Patrick Barlow adapted the story yet again, this time for the stage, using the Hitchcock film as a springboard for an evening of comic mayhem. While sticking amazingly close to the film's plot, Barlow has utterly subverted the spirit of the piece, creating a blazingly funny parody of the noir thriller genre.
It is that version of "The 39 Steps" that opened last weekend at TheatreWorks, in a production that is as close to perfect as anyone could wish. Directed by company founder Robert Kelley, the play is a finely tuned blizzard of crack comic timing and theatrical invention.
Hitchcock's works have long been a favorite target of parodists. (Readers of a certain age may recall a "Monsterpiece Theater" segment on "Sesame Street" in which Grover counts his way to the top of 39 stairs.) Perhaps this is because Hitchcock's films have burrowed so deeply into the popular consciousness. Cinematic tropes that he pioneered have since become so cliched that his films — seen for the first time by a modern audience — seem almost to parody themselves.
With Patrick Barlow's adaptation, there's no "almost" about it. Barlow's "39 Steps" is a flat-out, no-holds-barred spoof. But the genius of the piece lies in its unabashed theatricality. Most of the gags — with the exception of some clever references to other Hitchcock classics such as "North by Northwest" and "Strangers on a Train" — are less about Hitchcock's film than they are about the sheer lunacy of presenting a fast-paced espionage thriller on a nearly bare stage with only four actors.
Kelley has assembled an exceptional cast, led by Mark Anderson Phillips as Richard Hannay, a man capable of foiling an international spy ring with a combination of wits, pluck and a tobacco pipe concealed in his jacket pocket. Phillips is appropriately square-jawed and steely-eyed, and he maintains the believability of Hannay's perilous journey no matter how much zaniness may surround it.
Playing multiple female roles is Rebecca Dines, an actress with great comic chops and a flair for the '30s noir style. She appears first as the sultry Annabella Schmidt, a spy of eastern European descent who follows Hannay home from the theater and ends up dead in his living room, a knife in her back and a map of Scotland clutched in her hand. Later, she is Pamela, the classic headstrong Hitchcock blonde. Handcuffed to Hannay as he tries to elude trained killers and outsmart enemy agents, she is the perfect romantic foil.
The cast is rounded out by Cassidy Brown and Dan Hiatt, who play all of the story's remaining characters. These include a milkman, a taciturn crofter, a pair of ancient political boosters, a Scottish hotelier and his wife, any number of policemen (both genuine and counterfeit), and the mysterious Professor Jordan.
Much of the show's humor derives from the duo's breakneck character changes, as each dons a succession of hats, wigs, beards, coats, frocks and accents with dizzying speed. The play's most memorable bravura moment comes in Act I, when Brown and Hiatt play two constables, two newsboys and a pair of underwear salesmen — simultaneously, mind you — in a whirlwind of costume swaps, tricky stage choreography and nonstop jabber.
But as brilliant as the performances are, the actors could neither sustain the humor nor create the necessary illusions (of speed, height, inclement weather, etc.) without some equally brilliant work from the show's designers and technical crew. Joe Ragey's set is a defunct vaudeville-era theater, in which steamer trunks become a train, a rolling costume rack becomes a full regimental bagpipe band, and a bit of stage fog stands in for a trackless moor.
Costumer B. Modern has pared down the essence of each character to a bare minimum, allowing the actors to switch roles at (literally) the drop of a hat. Lighting designer Steven B. Mannshardt and sound designer Christopher Graham also make invaluable contributions, as sound effects, shifting lights and even shadow puppets do their part to bring this story to the stage.
You don't need to be a Hitchcock fan to appreciate TheatreWorks' production of "The 39 Steps." Anyone with a love of theater and an appreciation for the absurd cannot help but enjoy the crackerjack performances and unfettered theatricality of this ingenious spoof.
What: "The 39 Steps," a play presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Through Feb. 20, with shows Tuesday through Sunday at various times.
Cost: Tickets are $24-$79, with discounts for students and seniors.
Info: Go to theatreworks.org or call 650-463-1960.