Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Patrick Barlow's recent theatrical adaptation of The 39 Steps comes with oceans of context. It's a retread of a 1915 novel of the same name by John Buchan; it's an homage to the stylings of one Alfred Hitchcock, who directed the 1935 movie, and simultaneously a parody of the same; it's two hours of pure playfulness that toys with the conventions of adaptation and goofs on the impossibility of bringing a film of enormous scope to the stage. Somehow, the script is incessantly self-referential in all of these respects at once. It's a credit to director Travis W. Walter and this Meadow Brook Theatre production that the play is funny on every one of these highfalutin levels, not to mention just plain funny.

The story is one of espionage and international intrigue, but really it boils down to the hotly pursued civilian Richard Hannay (Rusty Mewha), who gets in way over his head and barely has time amidst all his fleeing to investigate the mysterious organization targeting him and to clear his name. His entry point is the mysteriously sexy but frustratingly obtuse Annabella Schmidt (Stephanie Wahl), a thickly accented spy who makes her abrupt exit before any questions can be answered. Once all fingers are pointed at Richard and the chase begins, Wahl returns in two other forms, as a timid Scottish housewife and as plucky Pamela Edwards, who finds herself attached to the desperate Richard in and out of custody, like a slapstick precursor to The Defiant Ones. Little of Hitchcock's trademark agonizingly quiet suspense is retained in this whirlwind adaptation, but the production knows its strengths lie in big actions and settings that change with impressive swiftness, from the garish footlights of a London music hall to a harrowing railroad bridge to a fog-secluded Scottish inn. Mewha gives off leading-man qualities that don't preclude him from playing for laughs, and Wahl excels at pushing the idiosyncrasies of her characters; the two play off each other well, especially in truly awkward moments.

Looming large among the challenges of this production is communicating the Hitchcock vision; here, with only four bodies on the large Meadow Brook stage, and small details that require notice, the challenge is to draw the viewer's attention where it needs to be. A close-up shot of an unseen killer's gun-wielding hand is achieved here through patient staging and Reid G. Johnson's bag-of-tricks lighting; it's evocative of the original, if by necessity far less blatant. In larger moments, and really in general, the production is an energetic free-for-all, punctuated by Mewha's running (in what will undoubtedly be a well-defined groove by closing night) across the front of Kristen Gribbin's generously wheel-enabled catch-all set. The deliberately low-budget effects are handled with astounding precision, although just as often, a technical challenge is sidestepped like a giant wink to the audience; both are showy enough to encourage bouts of spontaneous applause. The innumerable quick changes and inventive solutions to the difficulty of presenting an action movie with four people in a fixed location are certainly spectacular; they also thoroughly outshine the story.

One of the greatest differences between the cast-of-dozens original and this cast-of-four play is quite possibly its biggest strength. If Mewha portrays a single character and Wahl three, and the play boasts more than 100 characters in all, then the math suggests that Kevin Young and Rob Pantano have their work cut out for them. Appropriately billed as clowns, the two indeed generate a circus of activity around Richard, playing everyone from the paper boy to the pinnacle of the spy syndicate. Walter infuses the pair with an excellent vaudevillian physicality that fits both the period and the rapid-fire humor of the script, and Young and Pantano brilliantly slide between characters and give the bigger scenes a cacophonous sense of fullness. Even given the inherent dissonance of Mewha's hero against these smaller, often buffoonish characters, the quartet has all the hallmarks of an exceptional ensemble.

Beyond operating on so many levels, how does this production of The 39 Steps fare as a self-contained piece of theater? About as well as it possibly could. Neither lifelong appreciation of Hitchcock nor any prior knowledge is prerequisite to enjoy characters and scenarios that are simply very funny, of which there is no shortage. The format does threaten to weary of its premise, being constantly self-aware and requiring performances as sharp and practiced as clockwork. Still, Walter and company come out on top with a laugh-a-minute comedy that wields abundant visual, spoken, and physical punchlines both intelligent and bawdy.


Post a Comment