Critic's PickSometimes the best comedy comes from being dead serious. We learned from Monty Python that no matter how silly those fellows were in word or action they seldom cracked a smile. That’s a fundamental reason why The 39 Steps is a raucously funny evening in the theater: Four actors are deadly earnest, even when the action is frantically ridiculous. Laughter is inevitable.
Charming Richard Hannay is played by Ted Deasy, familiar to local audiences from productions of Doubt and The Foreigner at the Cincinnati Playhouse. He’s the deadpan, devilishly handsome, slightly full of himself narrator and nominal hero, a bored fellow looking for a good time who gets a whole lot more than he bargained for. His comic partner is Claire Brownell as a spy who gets knifed in his flat to set the mystery in motion; she’s also a hapless farmer’s wife and a spunky gal who regrets getting mixed up with Hannay, then falls for him.
But the real multipliers in this comic madhouse are Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson (pictured on the left with Deasy). They're listed as “Man #1” and “Man #2,” but that hardly suggests the countless roles — male and female, young and old, animate and inanimate — these two play. As often as not, there’s a quick change involved, often right before your eyes, flipping from a bobbie’s hat to a bowler or overalls to a trench coat.
They’re villains, cops, politicians, stage hands, streams, fences.
The 39 Steps is based on a 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock, and if you pay close attention you’ll find most of Hitchcock’s films referenced, often in groan-inducing puns or allusions. And just as Hitch often made cameo appearances in his films, he pops up at least once in a shadow play that portrays Hannay’s escape from bumbling officers.
This show could fool you into believing there’s a big cast, a lot of scenery and many locales. In truth, it’s done with a few props and costume changes and lots of inventive stage business.
When the characters are wandering the windy moors, they flap their coats incessantly. For an escape from a “rear window” (one of those Hitchcock references), Deasy steps through a square window frame he’s been holding. An imaginative sequence atop a speeding train will remind you that clever staging doesn't need to be literal, just suggestive. And watch when Hannay is escorted through a mansion with many doors: Just one door that keeps moving around the stage as our hero and his oddball hostess (Hissom in drag) walk around looking for the master of the house.
The great fun of The 39 Steps is its invention. Truth to tell, it’s a very faithful retelling of Hitchcock’s film (and the novel on which it's based). But there is another level of entertainment that makes it so much more than a daring mystery/spy story. The characters move with carefully choreographed absurdity: Even when you anticipate where a scene is going, some twist or strange physical move will catch you unaware and tickle your funny bone.
It’s a shame that Broadway Series audiences are less inclined to see shows like this that aren’t musicals (although you’ll hear plenty of big band from the ’30s over the sound system before the show and during the intermission). The 39 Steps is as entertaining as any big-budget musical stopping at the Aronoff Center, and all the more amazing because its magic is achieved with small resources.
It hits all the right notes.
THE 39 STEPS, presented by Broadway Across America, continues at the Aronoff Center for the Arts through March 14. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.