A classic British murder mystery, a Vaudevillian comedy and an Alfred Hitchcockk thriller all rolled into one, The 39 Steps hit the Ahmanson Theatre stage at a fast and furious pace last week. Based on Scottish author John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, the play is a runaway laugh train that gains more and more momentum as romance, gumshoe intrigue, and outlandish characters jump on board.
Adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, The 39 Steps stays true to the Hitchcock film in story only. In spirit, it’s an entirely different animal, an uproarious comedy unlike Hitchcock’s whodunit drama played mainly for suspense, secondarily for a few chuckles.
The stage version’s guffaws are elicited primarily by the ratio of actors to roles. Upwards of 150 characters are played by four exceedingly quick-witted, fleet-footed actors (Claire Brownell, Ted Deasy, Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson), all of whom contribute large doses of energy and talent to the parts.
Deasy, a master of comedic timing, is the only actor playing a single role, that of Richard Hannay, who sets out for a simple night of mindless entertainment at the music hall and ends up entangled in a sinister crime. When shots ring out in the theatre, Hannay flees with the crowd, taking home shaken theatre-goer, Annabella Schmidt (an uproariously affected Brownell), who wakes up with a knife in her back, presenting a highly problematic scenario for the innocent Hannay. Our flustered entertainment-seeker quickly becomes the prime suspect in a crime that stretches far beyond the single damsel lying prostrate on his couch. With the London police on his heels, Hannay makes a mad dash by train, foot, and motor car to a small Scottish town, the name of which was uttered by Schmidt as she took her last breath. In hot pursuit of exoneration, Hannay picks up a love interest as he’s leaping from moving trains and crossing raging rivers. His reluctant lover, also played by the endlessly versatile Brownell, first tries to turn him in, later realizes he’s being wrongfully accused.
Deasy and Brownell both delight, but they’re only half the fun. The duo of Hissom and Parkinson play the bulk of the roles, making lightning-fast costume and character changes that are the stuff of seasoned stage magicians.
If the fast pace and faster role-hopping create a comedy of blissful chaos, the deliberately basic stage devices seal the comic deal. Harsh winds are indicated by actors flapping their hair and coats, treacherous waters are conjured up with a simple sheet, and crowds of people are suggested via cutout paper dolls and lighting tricks.
And let’s not forget the homage to the theatre that happens here – after all it’s a play that launches into action with a character going to the theatre. In order to solve the crime and prove his innocence, guess where he must end up? And as this small cast of actors tackles the huge task of crafting a grand show from sheer will, we are reminded that it takes a village to stage one outstanding play, night after night.
Through May 16 at The Ahmanson, 135 N. Grand Ave. Call 213.972.4400 or visit www.CenterTheatreGroup.org.
Mirror Contributing Writeramy@smmirror.com