Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film The 39 Steps set the template for the innocent-everyman-caught-in-a-deadly-conspiracy plot line that has permeated Hollywood thrillers to this day. And no one did it better than Hitch. So it seemed only natural to bring to the stage the story of a man sucked into a world of intrigue, betrayal, femmes fatales, and chase scenes. Throw in some jokes, inventive set pieces, and high jinks, and you have The 39 Steps the farce: a witty and fast-paced version of the masterpiece.
Adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow and directed by the Orlando Shakespeare Theater's Jim Helsinger, this mostly enjoyable mishmash of comedic shtick, kinetic energy, and inventive stagecraft features a talented four-member cast playing 150 characters.
Exhausted by the tedious and angst-filled news of elections and war rumors, ordinary guy and proper Englishman Richard Hannay (Michael Frederic) decides he's had enough and goes out one night to do something "completely mindless and trivial." Of course, he ends up going to the theater.
The 39 Steps
Adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow. Through June 5 at Actors' Playhouse, 280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables; 305-444-9293; actorsplayhouse.org. Tickets cost $40 on weekdays and $48 on weekends.
There he meets a mysterious and beautiful woman with a thick German accent (Deanna Gibson) who might or might not have fired a gun in a crowd (the audience says she did, but Hannay is never sure). The woman begs Richard to take her home. She soon reveals she's being followed by two shady, cigarette-smoking characters in dark trench coats and fedoras. Hannay reluctantly allows her to stay the night. The next morning, he finds her dead with a knife in her back and a map clutched in her hand. So begins Hannay's harrowing trek to clear his name and uncover a massive conspiracy set in motion by the German woman's furtive words: "The 39 steps..."
The rest of The 39 Steps is a sometimes-mystifying yet wholly original comedy/spy thriller with shadowy villains, Nazi baddies, colorful characters, speeding trains, double-crosses, and hit-and-miss comedy. Those familiar with Hitchcock's film will find it easier to follow the plot, but because most of the lines are taken straight from the screenplay, you won't miss much if you've never seen the movie. And, as it is with anything involving Hitchcock, the mystery doesn't completely reveal itself until the very end.
Though the film is not a comedy, the stage version of The 39 Steps is complete farce. And it works well without ever losing track of its spy-thriller plot line.
The exact adaptation presents something of a challenge, however, and this is where the play falls short. The film, for as much as it is a classic, is a shade too long and lags in certain spots. Naturally, so does the play, which tries to cram the entire film onto the stage and suffers as a result.
Lost in the frenzy of quick-witted one-liners and rapid wardrobe and character changes is a script that hampers its talented cast. Some jokes work thanks to the fine performances, while others seem clichéd and obvious. The running gag in which the actors face the crowd with shocked expressions whenever the words the 39 steps are uttered becomes tired.
Michael Frederic is hilarious as Richard Hannay. He seems straight out of a '30s British film, with his pencil-thin mustache, self-assured speech, arched eyebrow, and polite English-chap demeanor. Frederic plays Hannay with tongue firmly in cheek, and his energy and charisma make you root for ol' Hannay to unravel the mystery and get the girl. Frederic's finest moments come when his character is being chased and he's forced to improvise a getaway. When Hannay falls from a bridge into a lake, Frederic brings the house down with his slapstick.
Deanna Gibson delivers a standout performance, jumping from one impossible accent (German) to another (Scottish) for her three characters. The sole woman in the cast, she seems to be the glue that holds it all together.
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Much of the energy comes from actors Brad Deplanche and Brandon Roberts, who play most of the minor characters and bounce from scene to scene with breakneck comedic timing. They don wigs and hats and leap through wardrobes and accents seemingly in the blink of an eye.
Ray Recht's uncomplicated, stripped-down set and Patrick Tennent's lighting complement Britt Sandusky's sound design and visual effects, which include fog machines and plenty of shadows. The set itself transforms as quickly as the actors, with baggage trunks turning into tables and train cars, and chairs morphing into getaway cars.
The 39 Steps would be better served if its story were as simple as its set design.