The best loved of Alfred Hitchcock’s early British films and perhaps the ripest target for parody, “The 39 Steps” set the mold for the director’s many thrillers about innocent men embroiled in foul play and on the run. It also established perhaps the most mischievous sense of humor in 20th century auteur filmmaking. That raw material provides playwright Patrick Barlow, director Maria Aitken and their crackerjack cast with a ridiculously elastic balloon to be blown up and burst repeatedly in this eccentric London import, presented on Broadway by Roundabout.
The inspiration for three screen adaptations, John Buchan’s 1915 page-turner follows a dapper fugitive dashing from London across the Scottish Highlands and back again while he attempts to save Britain from an enemy spy ring. The central joke in this frenetic spoof is the utter unsuitability of the material — with its high-speed chases across moors, rivers, an elevated bridge and the roof of a moving train — for stage presentation.
The dated conventions of ’30s filmmaking, the outmoded acting styles, preposterous accents and the loopy dialogue played straight all combine with a tongue-in-cheek performance mode that blends mime, slapstick and Monty Python-esque drollery in a brand of film sendup that’s more commonly the domain of television, from “The Carol Burnett Show” to “French & Saunders.” The kicker is that it’s all performed by a multitasking cast of four with only a handful of props and minimal set pieces.
Stepping into Robert Donat’s shoes as Richard Hannay, the unflappable, pipe-smoking hero with the pencil-thin mustache and flawless hair, Charles Edwards balances a brow perpetually knit in earnest contemplation, a stiff upper lip and a determinedly set jaw with the slyest of double takes (he’s the sole holdover from the London cast). In Edwards’ perf, Hannay’s anxiety in even the stickiest situations is always tempered by the character’s vanity, poise, smug self-satisfaction and a hint of dimness.
Edwards’ aplomb is placed in deliciously dry relief by the versatile characterizations of his three castmates.
Jennifer Ferrin assumes a ludicrous sauerkraut accent and an air of campy high dudgeon as Annabella Schmidt, who gets a knife in her back early on, kickstarting Richard’s northward mission with her dying words: “Alt na Shellach!” She next shows up aboard the Flying Scotsman in the Madeleine Carroll role as cool blonde Pamela, whose repeated attempts to turn Richard in cannot douse the romance.
Best of Ferrin’s trio of parts, however, is a painfully shy Scottish crofter’s wife played in the Hitchcock film by a young Peggy Ashcroft in her second screen role. Wide-eyed with questions about the wicked glamour of London women (“Is it troo that all the leedies peent thar toonails?”), she helps Richard escape through a window — actually just a handheld wooden frame — in one of the show’s funniest sequences.
The dozens of remaining roles are filled with tireless energy and an endless assortment of comic tics by the hilarious Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, aided by lightning-quick costume changes often limited to just a hat or a coat.
Burton and Saunders get some of the choicest bits of silliness to play, notably a music hall presenter and his human encyclopedia act, Mr. Memory, in the opening and climactic scenes; a pair of traveling ladies-underwear salesmen; an incognito espionage figure and his sinisterly hospitable wife; and an innkeeper couple who provide shelter for handcuffed Richard and Pamela.
Burton and Saunders’ dexterity as they simultaneously play a cop, a paperboy, a train porter and the underwear salesmen at Edinburgh Station is a high point. But it’s hard to top Saunders in a daffy riff on the film as an inaudible political assembly speaker, cackling silently at his own gags.
Working with movement directors Toby Sedgwick and Christopher Bayes, Aitken is fully aware that speed and precision are of the essence. When the show loses steam, its longueurs usually echo those of the film, notably Richard and Pamela’s overnight hotel stay.
The real key to its success, however, is that the thriller element is entirely secondary to the laughs milked from shoestring stagecraft that redefines the term low-tech.
Backed by nifty lighting tricks from Kevin Adams, Peter McKintosh’s resourcefully economical designs are at their cleverest in the hair-raising train chase, using only a series of traveling trunks and a smoke machine; in a parade of bagpipe players; when Richard is ushered ever deeper inside a large Scottish house via the same repeatedly repositioned doorway; and during his pursuit across the moors. That scene is staged as shadow theater on a backlit sheet, complete with the obligatory Hitchcock cameo, another from the Loch Ness monster and an homage to “North by Northwest.”
Jokey nods to other Hitchcock films are peppered throughout, dropping such titles as “The Lady Vanishes,” “The Man Who Knew Too Much,” “Strangers on a Train” and “Rear Window” into the dialogue and tossing in visual references or Bernard Herrmann music cues that evoke “Psycho” (a shower curtain doubles as a waterfall), “Vertigo” and “The Birds.” Hitch’s hoariest editing trick — the overlapping of a housekeeper’s scream as she discovers Annabella’s body with the whistle of the departing train — earns a huge laugh.
Sure, Mel Brooks visited similar territory in “High Anxiety,” and vintage Hitchcock has perhaps been more frequently plundered for parody than the work of any other filmmaker. But as a giddy display of theatrical invention that makes a virtue of its minimal means, “The 39 Steps” is an entertaining diversion.