Alfred Hitchcock announced that his 1935 spy yarn “The 39 Steps” was “out to give the public good, healthy, mental shakeups,” because society had become so drowsy, “We cannot appreciate sufficient thrills at first hand.” Seventy-five years and innumerable first-hand mental shakeups later, the belly laughs of Patrick Barlow’s live adaptation are positively restorative. Maria Aitken’s La Jolla restaging of her metatheatrical London and Gotham hit, performed by four of the world’s hardest-working thesps, has its arid patches and disappears into the ozone almost upon arrival. But it’s a treat while it lasts.
John Buchan’s square-jawed hero Richard Hannay (Robert Donat in the pic, Ted Deasy here) is James Bond without the official license, Simon Templar without the means. A false accusation of murder sends him sprinting from London to Scotland and back again to bring down an espionage ring, save England and win the girl (Claire Brownell channeling Madeleine Carroll). All in a day’s work, old bean.
Barlow’s recipe is roughly 70% affectionate reconfiguration of the source material; 10% downright groaners; and 20% comic embellishment in the vein of his series of farces starring the imaginary (and hopelessly inept) National Theater of Brent, whose missed cues, flubbed lines and self-conscious audience awareness are all echoed here.
The groaner category includes dopey riffs on guttural “ch” sounds in “loch” and “haddock,” and the tiresome ploy in which a man fumbles his fake name (“Oh — um — Hammond”) and is thereafter called “Mr. Oh-um-Hammond.” You’d call such gags sophomoric if it weren’t insulting to sophomores.
Blatant references to other Hitchcock movies are sometimes witty but mostly silly: “I can’t climb that high, I get vertigo.” “Quick! Out the window! Not the one in front, use the….” Keeping track of those, you could go psycho.
“The 39 Steps” works best when it stays closest to the movie, which is, thankfully, much of the time. Those who’ve never even seen it still roar as actors’ flapping their overcoats evokes the whipping Scottish winds, or a giant shadow-puppet screen re-creates Hannay’s desperate trek across the moors. Tables, a doorframe, an armchair careen around the bare stage in an effortless celebration of theatrical imagination — the artistic team’s, and our own.
Most memorable effect is a line of trunks transforming from train seats into the tops of the railroad cars themselves, abetted by the masterful lighting of Kevin Adams, who can turn a plain farmhouse or a cold-water flat into a luscious diorama of mood and color.
Deasy is right out of an Arrow Collar ad in Peter McKintosh’s perfectly tailored getup, though his upper lip could use stiffening (and his vowels de-Americanizing). Brownell comments rather too much on her Garboesque femme fatale murder victim and prim heroine, though her browbeaten farm wife dreaming of romance is a pip.
The evening, like the original movie, truly belongs to the vivid character cavalcade variously helping, hindering and hijacking Hannay, all portrayed here by the protean Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson.
Tirelessly they shuffle hats, costume pieces and accents with lightning speed, their 40 roles apiece making a veritable piker out of BD Wong, who’s responsible for only 11 parts in “Herringbone” in La Jolla’s smaller venue, barely 39 steps away.
Production zips from La Jolla to co-producer Seattle Rep, with a national tour to follow.