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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at the American Airlines Theater

By Bill Stevenson

  Jennifer Ferrin and Charles Edwards/Ph:Joan MArcus

Based on Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film, The 39 Steps is fun, fast moving, and inventively directed by Maria Aitken. Although Patrick Barlow's stage adaptation is an affectionate parody of one of the first great films by the Master of Suspense, it's missing one key ingredient: suspense. Instead of mystery and romance, the emphasis is on physical comedy and running gags.

One of the gags is the fact that the play relies on a cast of four to perform dozens of roles. Only Charles Edwards, reprising the role he created in London, plays only one part. Jennifer Ferrin has three roles, while Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton tackle a cavalcade of characters. They even play multiple characters in the same scene, and they double as women as well as men. The actors also move the simple, portable scenery that stands in for numerous interior and exterior locations. With able assists from set and costume designer Peter McKintosh and lighting designer Kevin Adams, director Aitken imaginatively propels the action from place to place and scene to scene

In outline, the plot closely follows the Hitchcock film (and John Buchan's 1915 novel that inspired it). Dapper Londoner Richard Hannay (Edwards) attends a performance at the London Palladium featuring Mr. Memory ( Saunders), who possesses a remarkable recall of innumerable facts. At the theater Hannay meets a German woman named Annabella ( Ferrin), who says she's looking for something called the 39 Steps and is being pursued by two men. When Annabella meets her untimely end, Hannay is suspected of committing the crime. Soon, he is on the run, accompanied by the pretty Pamela (Ferrin), who believes he is guilty.

The story may be the same, but the slapstick, silly jokes, and comical accents are a far cry from Hitchcock's sophisticated black-and-white mystery/romantic comedy. It's undeniably diverting, with a few terrific surprises along the way. But some running gags- like the wind blowing characters around- quickly grow stale. So do the numerous verbal and visual references to Hitchcock films (The Birds, North by Northwest, Vertigo and others). A typical example: After Hannay kisses Pamela to avoid the police, he says, We're just strangers on a train. Other running gags are funnier, like the references to how handsome Hannay looks with his pencil-thin mustache ( a la the film star, Robert Donat). And the clever staging, as when Hannay is chased atop a moving train or across the Scottish countryside, more than compensates for the less successful jokes.

The four hardworking actors do their part to make The 39 Steps a brisk, breezy entertainment. Just don't go to this high-concept send-up expecting Hitchcockian suspense.


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