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The 39 Steps

A Hitchcock tale offers more laughs than mystery in this thoroughly entertaining satire

Scott Parkinson and Eric Hissom keep an eye on Ted Deasy.

By By Rebecca Fishbein | Posted 6/9/2010

The 39 Steps

Adapted by Patrick Barlow

Through June 13 at the Hippodrome Theatre

Cases of mistaken identity. Unsolved murders. Mysterious, beautiful foreign women. Awkward train compartment companions. Panic-inducing orchestral music. These are staples of classic Hitchcock movies, those psychological thrillers that still manage to put the Saw series to shame, despite their old-fashioned technology and dependence on pencil-mustachioed, three-piece suit-clad protagonists.

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Film buffs may laud them, but The 39 Steps, currently being performed at the Hippodrome, seeks to poke fun at the Hitchcockian clichés that grace TCM’s late-night lineup. The witty farce borrows its plot from Hitchcock’s original 1935 film, a spy thriller based on John Buchan’s book of the same name, and pumps it full of clever, madcap comedy.

Directed by Maria Aitken, the play opens with the introduction of Richard Hannay (Ted Deasy), a 1930s Londoner who laments the lack of excitement in his life. He decides to see a show at the London Palladium, where he meets Annabella Schmidt (Claire Brownell), a beautiful foreigner who fires a shot in the middle of the performance. Hannay takes Annabella back to his apartment, where she tells him she is spy trying to procure important information about the mysterious "39 Steps" from an informant in Scotland. She insists the information must be kept from an evil double-agent who is missing the top joint on his pinky finger.

Later that night, Annabella is killed by assailants, leaving Hannay with nothing but the name of the Scottish manor she was trying to find. Pursued by police officers (Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson) who believe he is Annabella’s murderer, Hannay flees to Scotland on a screwball adventure. There, he encounters several bizarre characters, such as a zealous farmer (also Hissom) and his wife (Brownell), an enigmatic professor (Parkinson), and two frisky, elderly innkeepers (Hissom and Parkinson). A host of hilarious hijinks ensues, and though describing them in detail may ruin some of the fun, it’s worth mentioning that the Loch Ness monster has a cameo.

If you haven’t seen the original movie, the twisty, hurried plot may be a bit hard to follow, though anyone familiar with at least one of Hitchcock’s classics will be in on most of the jokes. Regardless of whether or not all the double-crossing and moor-hopping that goes on is crystal clear, the production injects humor into every scene. The script itself is fairly well written, taking jabs at other Hitchcock films such as Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest. The spy thriller is no stranger to satire, and the punch lines are a little obvious and the jokes a bit stale, but the cast, the play’s indubitable highlight, makes it all work in the end.

The cast is comprised of only four actors, who play about 150 characters, most of whom employ various eccentric accents, and they interact with one another often. Part of the fun is watching Hissom and Parkinson--both of whom are absolutely outstanding--dash about the stage, switching from bowler hats to police caps, from ladies’ nighdresses to Scottish kilts, all the while maintaining a steady rapport. They do it fast, they do it funny, and they pull off the feat without even a wheeze. Brownell is entertaining as a series of satirically clichéd love interests for Hannay, and Deasy keeps it all running as the ostensible straight man to the crazies that surround him.

The comical calamity is bolstered by the staging, which requires characters to climb through windows, jump off trains, and fly from balconies, using nothing but rectangular wooden squares, flashing lights, and flimsy dummies for props. Hissom and Parkinson assemble a car using a few pieces of wood. An entire chase scene is played out using silhouettes and cut-out puppets. The fourth wall is often breached with nudge-and-wink, Monty Python-esque flair, engaging the audience and poking fun at everything from the mindlessness of the theater to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. The orchestral music takes its cues from Hitchcock’s original score, which succeeds in adding false, frantic tension, making the adventure all the more farcical in the end.

The 39 Steps is satisfying, silly, and relentlessly whimsical. Hitchcock would have loved it.

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