Actors' Playhouse's The 39 Steps: An Enjoyable Mishmash of Comedic Shtick

Adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, and directed by Jim Helsinger, a talented four-member cast playing 150 different characters delivered a satisfyingly witty and fast-paced version of one of Alfred Hitchcock's first masterpieces at last night's Actors' Playhouse opening production of The 39 Steps.

Hitchock's original 1935 film set the template for the "innocent everyman caught in a deadly conspiracy" plotline that has permeated Hollywood thrillers to this day. And no one did it better than Hitch.

Exhausted from the every day tedious and angst-filled news of elections and rumors of wars, everyman 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.

It's at the theater that he meets a mysterious and beautiful woman with a thick German accent (Deanna Gibson) who may, or may not, have a fired a gun in a crowd (she did). The woman begs Richard to take her home. She soon reveals that she's being followed by two men in dark trench coats. 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 hands. And 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 thirty-nine 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, and double-crosses. Those familiar with the original film will find it easier to follow the plot, but since most of the lines are taken straight from the film, you don't miss much if you've never seen the movie. 

The exact adaptation of the film presents something of a challenge, however. And this is where the play finds its shortcoming. 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. While The 39 Steps is an enjoyable comedy, nothing particularly memorable stands out save for a hilarious chase scene performed with shadow puppets behind a screen.

Brad Deplanche and Brandon Roberts, who play the majority of the roles, perform their comedy-relief roles with skilled precision, donning wigs and hats and leaping through wardrobe changes seemingly at the blink of an eye.

Deanna Gibson delivers a stand out performance, meeting the challenge of bringing the funny while jumping from one impossible accent (German) to another (Scottish) with her three characters.

Michael Frederic makes a hilarious straight man as Richard Hannay. He seems straight out of an old 1930's British film, with his pencil thin mustache, halting way of speaking, cocked eyebrow and proper English chap demeanor.

The 39 Steps is a kinetic comedy driven by great performances, split-second wardrobe changes, and inventive stagecraft, and it's a unique and enjoyable way of experiencing one of Hitch's all-time classics.

Look for our longer review in this week's issue.

The 39 Steps runs until June 5 at the Actors' Playhouse (280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables). Tickets are $40 on weekdays, $48 on weekends with discounts for seniors and students. Call 305-444-9293 or visit actorsplayhouse.org.

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