“The 39 Steps” at Ahmanson Theatre

The 39 Steps
Ahmanson Theatre



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

TRAVIS MICHAEL HOLDER teaches acting and theatre/film history at the New York Film Academy’s west coast campus at Universal Studios. He has been writing about LA theatre since 1987, including 12 years for BackStage, a 23-year tenure as Theatre Editor for Entertainment Today, and currently for ArtsInLA.com. As an actor, he received the Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle Best Actor Award as Kenneth Halliwell in the west coast premiere of Nasty Little Secrets at Theatre/Theater and he has also been honored with a Drama-Logue Award as Lennie in Of Mice and Men at the Egyptian Arena, four Maddy Awards, a ReviewPlays.com Award, both NAACP and GLAAD Award nominations, and six acting nominations from LA Weekly. Regionally, he won the Inland Theatre League Award as Ken Talley in Fifth of July; three awards for his direction and performance as Dr. Dysart in Equus; was up for Washington, DC’s Helen Hayes honors as Oscar Wilde in the world premiere of Oscar & Speranza; toured as Amos “Mr. Cellophane” Hart in Chicago; and he has traveled three times to New Orleans for the annual Tennessee Williams Literary Festival, opening the fest in 2003 as Williams himself in Lament for the Moths and since returning to appear in An Ode to Tennessee and opposite Karen Kondazian as A Witch and a Bitch. Never one to suffer from typecasting, Travis’ most recent LA performance, as Rodney in The Katrina Comedy Fest, netted the cast a Best Ensemble Sage Award from ArtsInLA. He has also been seen as Wynchell in the world premiere of Moby Pomerance’s The Good Book of Pedantry and Wonder and Frank in Charles Mee’s Summertime at The Boston Court Performing Arts Center, Giuseppe “The Florist” Givola in Brecht’s The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui for Classical Theatre Lab, Ftatateeta in Shaw’s Caesar and Cleopatra at the Lillian, Cheswick in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest at the Rubicon in Ventura, Pete Dye in the world premiere of Stranger at the Bootleg (LA Weekly Award nomination), Shelly Levene in Glengarry Glen Ross at the Egyptian Arena, the Witch of Capri in Williams’ The Milk Train Doesn’t Stop Here Anymore at the Fountain, and Dr. Van Helsing in The House of Besarab at the Hollywood American Legion Theatre. As a writer, he has also been a frequent contributor to several national magazines and five of his plays have been produced in LA. His first, Surprise Surprise, for which he wrote the screenplay with director Jerry Turner, became a feature film with Travis playing opposite John Brotherton, Luke Eberl, Deborah Shelton and Mary Jo Catlett. His first novel, Waiting for Walk, was completed in 2005, put in a desk drawer, and the ever-slothful, ever-deluded, ever-entitled Travis can’t figure out why no one has magically found it yet and published the goddam thing. www.travismichaelholder.com