Friday, May 15, 2009

Theater Review: The 39 Steps

Location: Helen Hayes Theatre, 240 West 44th Street, NY, NY

Website: The 39 Steps Official site

Starring: Sean Mahon, Francesca Faridany, Arnie Burton, Jeffrey Kuhn

My Review: The play The 39 Steps is based on a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name that I’ve never seen. Luckily, viewing the movie is not a prerequisite for enjoying the madcap farce on stage. The stage production takes the espionage thriller and turns it into a comedy, a salute to vaudeville, and a circus, as a company of only four actors take on over 150 different characters, and you spend a breathless two hours trying to keep up with them.

Richard Hannay is a bored Londoner, and the only character whose actor only has to play one part, who finds himself on a perilous journey to Scotland to figure out what the 39 Steps are after a mysterious German spy is murdered in his home. Along the way he encounters a series of characters played by two very energetic and versatile actors. He also finds himself handcuffed to a beautiful woman he meets on a train, pursued by the police, and threatened by a Nazi missing the tip of his pinky finger. But somehow all of these perils play out as side-splitting comedy. Once the play is over, you wonder if the question, “What are the 39 Steps?” has ever really been answered. But it doesn’t really matter, since the search for the 39 Steps is just a device to initiate Hannay’s wild adventure. It’s all about the journey, not the destination.

While Richard Hannay may be the main character, the production rests on the shoulders of the two playing Man #1 and Man #2 (Arnie Burton and Jeffrey Kuhn). With a series of lightening-fast costume changes, a switching of wigs, and affecting different accents, the two men each play dozens of different characters, and have to be nimble enough to easily transition from role to role in a nanosecond. Watching them is like watching a circus act of highly trained clowns and acrobats, but with professional theater training. With less capable actors in these roles, the entire production would fall apart.

In addition to minimal actors, The 39 Steps also uses minimal scenery, with a stark stage and a few props that regularly rotate between scenes. Rather than relying on elaborate props and scenery, the actors deftly pantomime everything from riding a crowded train, to crossing a Scottish loch, to a police chase through a forest. And while being a Hitchcock fan is not required to enjoy the show, there are occasional mimed callouts to other Hitchcock works to entertain those in the know.

Bottom Line: I actually saw The 39 Steps for the first time over a year ago, but didn’t hesitate at the opportunity to see it again. It’s one of the funniest and most clever plays I’ve seen in a long time. It’s amazing that one production with only four actors and minimal scenery can do what other productions with a cast of one hundred and revolutionary special effects struggle to achieve.

No comments:

Post a Comment