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.
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.
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.
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 century auteur filmmaking. That raw material provides playwright Patrick Barlow, director Maria Aitken and their crackerjack cast with a ridiculously elastic balloon to be blown up and burst repeatedly in this eccentric London import, presented on Broadway by Roundabout.
The inspiration for three screen adaptations, John Buchan's 1915 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 presentation.
The dated conventions of '30s filmmaking, the outmoded acting styles, preposterous accents and the loopy dialogue played straight all combine with a tongue-in-cheek 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 pieces.
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 knit 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 character's vanity, poise, smug self-satisfaction and a hint of dimness.
Edwards' aplomb is placed in deliciously dry relief by the versatile characterizations of his three castmates.
Jennifer Ferrin assumes a ludicrous sauerkraut accent and an air of campy high dudgeon as Annabella Schmidt, who gets a knife in her back early on, kickstarting Richard's northward 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 romance.
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.
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 lightning-quick costume 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 traveling ladies-underwear salesmen; an incognito espionage figure and his sinisterly hospitable 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 inaudible political assembly speaker, cackling silently at his own gags.
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 stay.
The real key to its success, however, is that the thriller element is entirely secondary to the laughs milked from shoestring stagecraft that redefines the term low-tech.
Backed by nifty lighting tricks from Kevin Adams, Peter McKintosh's resourcefully economical designs are at their cleverest in the hair-raising train 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 same repeatedly repositioned doorway; 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 peppered throughout, 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 waterfall), "Vertigo" and "The Birds." Hitch's hoariest editing trick -- the overlapping of a housekeeper's scream as she discovers Annabella's body with the whistle of the departing train -- earns a huge laugh.
Sure, Mel Brooks visited similar 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 theatrical invention that makes a virtue of its minimal means, "The 39 Steps" is an entertaining diversion.