THE 39 STEPS

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    January 1, 2008
    Review by:
    Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus

    Reviews from the show's opening run at the American Airlines Theatre

    Review by Barbara Mehlman and Geri Manus
    15 Jan 2008

    Two strangers notice each other across a crowded theater while watching the current theatrical human marvel, Mr. Memory, perform his unique act of regurgitating facts and information upon request. A gun is fired; the audience panics; the two strangers find each other, and the woman asks theman to take her to his flat. He does, no questions asked. She winds up with a knife in her back. He runs from the police. The chase is on.

    The next hour and a half of this campy 1930s spy thriller, crossed with the insanity of Monty Python, turns into a madcap tour-de-force of situational comedy hi-jinks complete with runaway spies, Keystone-style cops, speeding trains, and search planes, all in non-coordinated pursuit of Richard Hannay, the missing alleged murderer of said woman. With four actors changing roles as quickly as they can switch hats and props, they barely have time to catch their breaths, never mind any criminals.

    Patrick Barlow's adaptation of the classic Hitchcock film, "39 Steps" -- which would delight the master himself -- is carried out on a live Broadway stage through the minimalist designs, props and costumes of Peter McKintosh and the concepts of director Maria Aitken following a sold-out successful run in London's West End where it won a well-deserved Olivier, the British version of the Tonys.

    Although seeing the Hitchcock original is not mandatory for appreciating this very physical comedy, watching the black and white film first does add considerably to the understanding of the gags, sets and costumes. Proof that "less is more," this cleverly conceived production relies on the de rigueur fog machine, and spoofs the props and vehicles so prominent in the film by substituting toys, lighted scrims, and stick figures for bridges, speeding trains, and exhausting escapes through Scottish castles.

    Hannay, played by the lithe and dapper Charles Edwards, escapes through these fabrications and seeks refuge in the arms of "woman on train," kissing her till the cops pass. Alas, she blows the whistle louder than the train itself, and he is on the run again.

    The lovely Jennifer Ferrin, playing multiple roles, weaves in and out of Hannay's predicament with literally, sleight of hand maneuvers. Handcuffed to him at one point, Ferrin, as Margaret, heightens the sleuthery as she slithers out of her wet stockings, keeping Hannay¹s arm strategically dangling at great peril. This sets up her ultimate challenge as she slides out of more than her stockings, leaving Hannay and cuffs behind, with inspectors still hot on their trail.

    In true British form, Charles Edwards proves that a gentleman in a good wool tweed suit, which he wears throughout the entire play, cannot be a real monster. The steps he takes to save his reputation, as well as the "government secret that is about to leave the country," which only one person knows, are equal to many more than 39. So Is 39 the number of parts the other two cast members play?

    The ads say it's at least 150, and the fast-paced, perfectly timed duo of Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders would probably say it feels like more than that, as they slip in and out of costumes, genders, and moveable doors right under the audience's nose.

    But no, the 39 steps is. . . can't tell. The suspense of this low-brow comedy is sustained through to the end when the secret is revealed in a true Hitchcock surprise ending. And if you rent the video, you'll discover the germs of "Vertigo," "Rear Window," and "North by Northwest," Hitchcock classics that bear the trademark scenes first seen in "39 Steps." See this entertaining comedy before it closes.

    (Barbara Mehlman & Geri Manus)

    BEN BRANTLEY for NEW YORK TIMES says, "This fast, frothy exercise in legerdemain is throwaway theater at its finest. And that’s no backhanded compliment."

    JOE DZIEMIANOWICZ for NEW YORK DAILY NEWS says, "Hilarious comedy."

    CLIVE BARNES for NEW YORK POST says, "The play's creators have affectionately pushed Hitchcock's brilliance...into some riotous realm of satire, without losing its essentially Hitchcockian flavor."

    MICHAEL SOMMERS for STAR LEDGER says, "The laughter rarely lets up."

    ELYSA GARDNER for USA TODAY says, "It's an impeccably crafted trifle."

    LINDA WINER for NEWSDAY says, "An utterly pointless but physically and conceptually ingenious spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's equally foolish but stylish and dead-serious spy thriller from 1935."

    ERIC GRODE for NEW YORK SUN says, "Pretty funny."

    JAQUES LE SOURD for JOURNAL NEWS says, "See the movie. And forget the show."

    ROBERT FELDBERG for THE RECORD says, "The evening is good-natured fun, even if it lacks the spark of zaniness that might have made for memorable comedy."

    DAVID ROONEY for VARIETY says, "An entertaining diversion."

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