by Lucy Komisar
Aug 29, 2008
The suave hero is racing over moors, pursued by a small bi-plane, while on a hill to the side, a familiar figure watches. It is Alfred Hitchcock, who regularly shows up in his mystery thrillers. Except this isn‘t cinema, it‘s theater, and old Alfie is a tiny Indonesian-style shadow puppet. It‘s a scene from Maria Aitken‘s enormously clever production of Patrick Barlow‘s parody of Hitchcocks “The 39 Steps.” You‘ve never seen anything like it.
It is 1935, just the right year for a film noir spy drama actually made by Hitchcock in that pre-war time and centered around a devilish villain whose accent becomes more Germanic as his malevolent plot is revealed.
Charles Edwards plays the hero, Richard Hannay, who is stereotypically British: he phones his broker, goes to his club, and when a beautiful lady wants to come home with him, says, Well, I’ve got the decorators in.
Jennifer Ferrin portrays three seductive women, beginning with Annabella Schmidt who seeks Hannay‘s help in stopping the theft of British air secrets.
There‘s lots of hokey movie music and dialogue like this:
Annabella: Have you ever heard of the Thirty Nine Steps?
Hannay: What‘s that, a pub?
Annabella: Please no jokes Mr. Hannay. If they are not stopped, it is only a matter of days, perhaps hours before the top secret and highly confidential information is out of the country. And when they‘ve got it out of the country God help us all!!!
Alas, Anabella is knifed by an unseen stranger. Hannay is the prime suspect and escaping with police in hot pursuit, he clambers atop train cars, races over moors, and slogs across a river.
He is sometimes betrayed, sometimes saved by the intervention of a beautiful woman.
Margaret, the put-upon wife of a dour Scottish farmer, warns him of police headlights. Svelte Londoner Pamela turns the fugitive in, then finds herself handcuffed to him as a material witness. A typical stage direction: “They gaze at each other. A moment of stunned sexual longing.” Pamela is the assertive ingenoue of the 30s who of course falls for the guy.
Aficionados will be happy to learn that all the original scenes are there (albeit somewhat altered!) and that some of the text comes right out of the original film.
Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton play too many characters to name — the police, a pair of traveling salesmen, the bad guys, a couple running an inn in Scotland, the organizers of a political meeting, and, of course, the villain and his wife. Sometimes they play two people at a time. Occasionally, they even pinch hit for scenery. One rolls on his back and sticks his up legs, and then a long bolt of blue cloth unfurls. It‘s a stream in the cleft of the hills.
Just so you don‘t forget this is Hitchcock, names of his films are subtly introduced through the action. Margaret, the farmer‘s wife, warns Hannay of the police and advises him to escape via “The Rear Window!” As Hannay flees across the Scottish Moors, the bi-plane pilot gives the direction as North by Northwest! When Hannay and Pamela must climb a ladder to escape pursuers, he asks, “Too high?” She replies “I get…” — and they both finish the sentence: “Vertigo.” Escaping from two thugs, they hide behind a waterfall represented by a shower curtain. We see them in silhouette, his pipe pointing at her back: “Psycho.”
The suspense and the drama come to a head at the London Palladium at a performance of Mr. Memory, who will be described by the Detective Superintendent as “The Man Who Knew Too Much.”
Charles Edwards is wonderfully smooth and awkward at the same time. He‘s the sort who was born with a pipe in his mouth, a sense of place in the class order of things, and a complex attitude towards women. Jennifer Ferrin moves easily from tough counter-spy Arabella, to submissive farmer‘s wife Margaret, and most comfortably to that British film standard, Pamela, who manages to be independent and traditional at the same time. Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton are quite amazing in their quick changes of costume and personality.
Director Maria Aitken stages a spy drama that is both gripping and ridiculous. It‘s a production that Alfie would have considered a smart tribute.
“The 39 Steps.” adapted by Patrick Barlow from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock from the novel by John Buchan. Based an original concept by Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble. Directed by Maria Aitken. Starring Charles Edwards (replaced by Sam Robards July 8th), Jennifer Ferrin Arnie Burton, Cliff Saunders. Sets by Peter McKintosh. Lighting by Kevin Adams. Costumes by Peter McKintosh.
Roundabout Theatre Co., Cort Theatre, 138 West 48th St. Tue at 7pm; Wed- Sat at 8pm; Wed & Sat at 2pm; Sun at 3pm Running Time: 1:45. $98.50. 212-239-6200. http://www.39stepsonbroadway.com/.
Photos by Joan Marcus.