The 39 Steps
Transplanting The 39 Steps to El Lay from its heralded success first in London and then Broadway on the first stop of its national tour offers us sorrowful and financially oppressed Angelenos an especially mindless evening’s entertainment free of budget crises, wars, dysfunctional families, racism, or any other pressing-depressing issue of our day.
Now at the Ahmanson through May 16, The 39 Steps—of course loosely based on the well-worn 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same title—is a rare opportunity to indulge in a silly two-hour diversion from health care and oil spills and all those dangerous Tea Party dimwits without providing much raison d’etre except to treat audiences to a well-needed dose of pure, ingenious fun.
Patrick Barlow’s adaptation couldn’t have been better placed than in the hands of director Maria Aitken, who envisioned the tale attempted by a small English rep company touring the Provinces in the 1950s—a troupe without much meat on its artistic bones and very few dollars to pay for props, scenery or company members.
Here the perfectly stone-faced yet incredibly elastic Ted Deasy, giving a purposefully less-than dashing interpretation of poor easily bored Richard Hannay (the role Robert Donat made famous), is surrounded by a hardworking trio of quick-changing supporting actors. As Deasy’s everyman suffers his world-class case of mistaken identity, running continuously from the law and secret agents galore, the equally physically flexible Claire Brownell, Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson play every other character from the original movie—and then some, I suspect. If ever the old comic book Plasticman becomes a Broadway show, these four performers could easily compete for the leading role regardless of age, sex, or comedic affiliation.
Deasy, Brownell, Hissom and Parkinson are all simply terrific in these demanding roles, bending and gyrating like fugitives from Matt Walker’s Troubies under the leadership of Toby Sedgwick and Christopher Bayes who are credited, respectively, for the original and “additional” precision movement of the characters. As Hannay faces off against maniacal professors, seductive spies, and vaudeville mind-readers, Hitchcock’s complicated and highly melodramatic story becomes a sort of onstage-only version of Noises Off, although here the actors must show their frustration with the stagehands and fellow performers without a glimpse of any overly-dramatized backstage hijinks.
The only thing missing to make The 39 Steps a total farce is a conspicuous lack of slamming doors on Peter McKintosh’s sparse but inventive set, but all the other usual bells and whistles are there, including ridiculous but clearly unidentifiable eastern block accents, mad chases on roofs of moving trains, winds created by waving coats and hats in a nonexistent breeze and, of course, the obligatory unattractive men dressed as butt-ugly landladies and social matrons.
McKintosh’s versatile costuming, as well as the Tony-winning contributions of Kevin Adams’ moody period lighting and Mic Pool’s often hilarious sound plot, make for a stellar night out for all ages.
My friend Jeffrey and I met one of my fellow critics at intermission of The 39 Steps opening night who was obviously not enjoying herself. “Oh, yes,” she said wearily, “the performances are great and it's all quite clever, but… to what end?” What end? Um… maybe to just have a good time and let the world handle its own depressing problems until it’s time for The 11 O’Clock News?
The 39 Steps plays through May 16 at Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. El Grand Av. in the LA Music Center; for tickets, call 213.972.4400. For more information, visit www.centertheatregroup.org