Almost a century ago, British novelist John Buchan wrote a potboiler about espionage and double-dealing. Twenty years later in 1935, film director Alfred Hitchcock turned The 39 Steps into a much-admired cinematic thriller. In 2007, Patrick Barlow — with his tongue firmly in his cheek — plucked stories, scenes, events and lines from Buchan’s novel and Hitchcock’s film to create a joke-filled stage adaptation telling the tale using just four hardworking actors. It was a big hit in London and New York City; it toured the U.S. a few years ago, including a stop at Cincinnati’s Aronoff Center in March 2010.
Local audiences can see it again this summer: Cincinnati Shakespeare Company is presenting The 39 Steps at its intimate theater on Race Street downtown, with seats for just 185 audience members. At the Saturday evening performance I attended, just about everyone filling the seats (a nearly sold-out house), from teens to senior citizens, had a good time, laughing out loud at groan-inducing puns, slapstick, quick costume changes, crazy double takes and actors just on the verge of losing their concentration due to the silliness of others onstage.
That’s the product of four excellent comic performers who excel at physical comedy and witty banter. The 39 Steps includes numerous sly references to Hitchcock’s films, including a chase sequence as in Strangers on a Train, a funny pun on Rear Window, a hotel right out of Psycho, a leading lady with a case of Vertigo and crop-dusting airplanes as in North by Northwest. (If you don’t know Hitchcock’s thrillers, you won’t have a problem following the story, but if you do, it’s a whole added layer of humor.)
Nick Rose, who played a significant role in founding the theater company 20 years ago, is handsome, bored Richard Hannay, yearning to escape his humdrum existence in London. Speaking directly to the audience in an opening monologue, he finds the answer to his needs with a slap-your-forehead insight, saying, “I’ll go to the theater!”
He makes his way there, but watching a vaudeville act featuring “Mr. Memory,” his box is invaded by the mysterious Annabella Schmidt, played by Miranda McGee, CSC’s always-reliable comic actress. (We see her subsequently as the put-upon wife of an ignorant farmer and a spunky gal on a train who is unwillingly drawn into Hannay’s escapade.) Schmidt fires a gun to create confusion and escape two men, who are following her. She asks Hannay to take her back to his London flat so she can hide out.
By morning she’s dead with a knife in her back, using her dying breath to reveal to him an espionage plot that must be foiled to save Britain, and he’s on the run to avoid being accused of her murder. Rose gets to do a lot of running in place in this production, isolated in a pool of light, huffing and puffing.
If you know the film (or the novel), these are all familiar elements of the plot, but the story is told with exceptional invention using a few trunks, chairs and a ladder to recreate a train, a bridge trestle, a car and more. Most inventive of all might be performers who play “Clown 1” and “Clown 2,” Billy Chace and Justin McCombs. They all but steal the show with their shtick, morphing into dozens of roles, from the creeps stalking Annabella, to the police officers, train conductors and others in pursuit of Hannay. They squeeze every drop of zany humor out of every scene they’re in — sometimes every line.
Chace and McCombs are deliriously silly. Their rapid-fire routine on the train, exchanging hats and coats as they rotate through a half-dozen characters, is brilliant. As an innkeeper’s wife (Chace in drag, sporting an impenetrable Scots accent) and her irascible husband (McCombs, popping out from behind a newspaper to translate her remarks), the wit is evident. But as two elderly politicians who wheeze and grunt as they move furniture and incomprehensibly introduce Hannay (who they’ve mistaken for a local celebrity), the stage business becomes tedious.
Brian Isaac Phillips, CSC’s producing artistic director, has staged this avalanche of hilarity, and The 39 Steps is a good choice for summer entertainment. (However, if you saw CSC’s recently revived Hound of the Baskervilles, you will feel that you’ve returned for a second installment of this kind of humor.)
I would have preferred a few less gags and a bit more storytelling, but I can report that most everyone in attendance enjoyed the tomfoolery.
THE 39 STEPS, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through Aug. 11. More info: cincyshakes.com.