The late, great theatrical genie Charles Ludlum must be smiling down on the wonderfully ridiculous, gloriously low-tech and insanely fast-paced stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 classic British thriller “The 39 Steps.” The West End hit is now having its U.S. preem in Beantown before making its way to the Rialto for a Jan. 10 opening in Roundabout’s presentation at the American Airlines Theater.
Innocent-man-on-the-run story is played entirely in stylized, tongue-in-cheek fashion, with occasional trips into Carol Burnett territory — or even as a kind of “Forbidden Hitchcock.” That it’s presented so deftly, cleverly and — at less than two hours, including intermission — quickly makes this amusement park ride of a show more than satisfying.
But lacking a subversive streak, a satirical bite or even a human touch, the comic confection is likely to fade from memory soon after the curtain comes down. Not likely to disappear, however, are the multitudes of productions this four-person, simple-space show will generate in theaters in the years to come.
Based on the movie (which saw two remakes) and the 1915 John Buchan novel that may not be as familiar to Stateside auds as to Brits, the heightened silliness is sustained by its locomotive pace; the inventiveness of the staging (in addition to director Maria Aitkin, two names are credited for “movement”); and the likeability of the quartet of performers, headed by Charles Edward, who re-creates his West End star turn.
Edwards plays the unflappable, suave Canadian (Robert Donat in the film) who gets mixed up in a spy-ring plot and becomes the quintessential Hitchcockian mistaken man on the run. In his cyclical journey, the character encounters a murdered femme fatale, a disfigured espionage leader, the Loch Ness monster, several henchmen, unbelieving police and Mr. Memory, the eccentric music hall performer who holds the key to the plot.
But the mystery of “39 Steps” is the least interesting part of the production — sort of the theatrical MacGuffin, if you will. The tension, thrills and comedy come from watching the actors pulling off cinematic scenes from their theatrical bag of tricks, whether it be a chase in, around and on top of a speeding train; an escape through Scottish bogs; or marching in a parade of bagpipe players.
Edwards, whose eyebrows are arched through most of the goings-on, has the sweet daftness and understated dash of a ’30s leading man who knows too much. His droll elan — not a hair out of place on his perfectly coiffed head during these cross-country runs — is the comic calm amidst the madness that surrounds him.
In a variety of female roles (some drag work covers others), Jennifer Ferrin plays Pamela, the archetypal cool blond played by Madeleine Carroll in the film. But Ferrin is even more hysterical as a thick-accented German babe who gets offed in the hero’s flat.
Playing the rest of the scores of characters from the film are the inexhaustible Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, both of whom have their tour de farce moments, Burton’s meltdown at play’s climax as the spymaster and Saunders’ soft-spoken, blathering politician among them.
The production features sly touches that cineastes will savor (Mr. Memory’s tilting posture nicely echoes the extreme angle shots from the film), while more obvious references to Hitchcock are struck regularly like gongs. (“The lady vanished as well,” says one of the scores of characters. “We’re just strangers on a train,” says another.)
Production nicely honors Hitchcock by placing him in the title of the play (and giving him a fun cameo). But that’s as it should be. The 87-minute film’s economy, pace, irreverence and sense of theatrical style gave these savvy adapters and quick wits strong source material with which to provide theatergoers a jolly good time.