Review by Tulis McCall
(15 Apr 2010)
Loved it two years ago and love it even more now. It’s a spoof; it’s a circus; it’s ballet; it’s a bird AND a plane. The 39 Steps is also a little producing marvel. Originally produced at the Roundabout in 2008, the show moved to the Court and then to the Helen Hayes. It is now in its third incarnation, following in the footsteps of Avenue Q, whose powers that be had a light bulb idea a few months ago, and settling in quite well at the New World Stages.
Based on the 1935 Hitchcock movie (based on the 1915 John Buchan novel), this is the story of a man caught in the wrong place at the wrong time. While Buchan’s novel was pre WWI the plot was easily transferable to England two years after Hitler had become Chancellor of Germany.
The story has that ease and elegance of fantasy that we associate with the 1930’s. This is not only in the writing but also due to the cast that is facile, funny and fluid as they fly from one plot point to the next. The key here is story telling. How little do you need to tell a story? A few chairs, a ladder, a window frame, wonderful actors and voila. This production is iconic on the theatre side of the argument called “Why Do We Need Theatre? Why Don’t We All Just Go To The Movies?”
Richard Hanny, an upper class Brit with too much time on his hands, is present when shots are fired at a theatre. A mystery woman seeks refuge at his home and is murdered there. Before she dies she tells him of a plot against the country that involves the 39 Steps being smuggled out, of a mansion in Scotland “Alt-na-Shell-achhhh “ that holds some answers and of an evil man who is missing the top digit of his little finger. Before the police can arrive Hanny escapes with a map of Scotland and the coat of a milkman and little else. He is off to save the country and prove himself innocent of murder at the same time. On the way he will jump train cars, be shot at, impersonate a war hero, be handcuffed to a beautiful woman and yes, he will meet the evil man and uncover the secret of The 39 Steps.
And he has a little over 90 minutes to get the whole shebang accomplished.
John Behlmann is flawless as Richard Hanny, the innocent guy in the wrong place. Behlmann is charming and self effacing. He understands comedy and gives himself over completely to a role that demands that he be victim, champion and clown all at once.
Kate MacCluggage (love that name!) is equally as engaging as she slips in and out of the three characters she plays. She is an ingénue with chutzpah. Damsel in distress, undercover spy, forlorn wife with a little larceny up her sleeve. She handles all three tasks with such skill that it is only the program that assures you it is the same person.
Swanning away with the night however, are the duo of Cameron Fulmar and Jamie Jackson. These two handle oh 50 or so characters that measure the distance between Hanny and the meaning of The 39 Steps. Not only are they superb, but the fact of their transformations becomes a joke in itself. They are part Marx brothers and part Monty Python. They are trapeze artist of the theatre, and with every note they hit the audience slides deeper into pure infatuation.
With the exception of some of the dialects – Mr. Belmann is the only one to hang onto his successfully, and this is an oversight that should be corrected - this is a construct of the highest order delivered by a company (the technical crew on this one deserves kudos as well) that is executing what Maria Aitkin created three years ago. Four actors in a black box create a tale that spans a continent and includes world politics, romance, universal drama structures, vaudeville, pantomime, film references, shadow puppets and cross dressing.
The 39 Steps is art disguised as pure entertainment. It is theatrical ingenuity that trumps all comers.
Go see. Go see.