One step at a time

Hitchcock Takes the Stage in a Hilarious The 39 Steps

The Alley Theatre offers a high comedy quotient with an adaptation of Hitchcock's film (which was based on a book).

By Doni Wilson July 28, 2017

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Todd Waite as Richard Hannay.

Take an infusion of Hitchcock, a splash of camp and the comedic hijinks of Alley favorites Todd Waite and Elizabeth Bunch, and you have the perfect cocktail of summer fun to top off the theater’s traditional “Summer Chills” fare. Past seasons have featured plays by Agatha Christie or plays featuring Sherlock Holmes, so it was refreshing to see Alfred Hitchcock added to this mix.

When it debuted in 1935, Hitchcock’s film of the same name solidified his status as one of Britain’s greatest filmmakers. The plot of The 39 Steps has elements that would resurface in many of his later Hollywood films, including a profound skepticism toward authority figures, cat-and-mouse chase scenes, incisive humor and, inevitably, a gorgeous blonde. All these elements are in the Alley’s production; the twist is that they’re performed with a wink and a laugh. With over 100 memorable characters played by four excellent actors, this high-energy show is for all ages and has something for everyone.

Yes, the play’s terrain is Hitchcock’s mystery, but the approach winks at the audience to mock not only the conventions of theater and film noir, but also the signature motifs of Hitchcock’s films. Audiences enjoyed the super-obvious (but funny) allusions to Hitchcock films ranging from Vertigo to North by Northwest, and even if a reference to something like Rear Window is groan-worthy, it’s still funny.

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Mark Price as Man #2, Elizabeth Bunch as Margaret, Todd Waite as Richard Hannay and Bruce Warren as Man #1.

Todd Waite is excellent as our world-weary hero Richard Hannay—a character who appeared in five of the John Buchan novels on which The 39 Steps is based. Hannay is a burned out and bored Englishman figuring things out in post-World War I Britain. In a comic opening, Hannay tells us how he’s tired of the world and vacillates between telling himself to “pull himself together” or just give up. Instead, he decides to do something “utterly pointless” and “go to the theatre!”

This begins the series of laughs in which the play makes fun of itself—not in the pretentious, self-referential way of some postmodern literature, but in the winking way of comedy that makes you laugh. Hannay is distracted from his ennui after a beautiful and mysterious German woman played by Elizabeth Bunch ends up dead in his flat—a death scene so campy, physically demanding and over-the-top I wanted them to do it again. Her death—and last words—leads Hannay on an obsessive journey to figure out the meaning of “the 39 steps” she warns him about.

Thus begins some of the most entertaining choreography and stagecraft I’ve seen outside the realm of the dance musical—wind sequences, bicycle rides, running across terrain—and the priceless scenes in which the actors must mimic being on a bouncing train.

Original and risky, this show is full of surprises. For one, all the actors, including Bruce Warren, who plays Man Number One, and Mark Price, who plays Man Number Two, play extremely challenging multiple roles and must quickly move from character to character—something I found thrilling to watch. These two men must work in sync, and as impressed as I was with the pivotal Mr. Memory, a character with amazing recall abilities who incites the play’s journey, even their more minor characters are memorable and fun to watch. From changing ages to professions to genders, these two are like watching a master class in versatility. What can I say? Super fun.

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Todd Waite as Richard Hannay, Bruce Warren as Man #1, Mark Price as Man #2 and Elizabeth Bunch as Pamela.

Elizabeth Bunch can riff on so many stereotypes ranging from a German spy-type named Annabella Schmidt to a besotted rural Scotswoman to a version of Hitchcock’s signature chilly blonde. She is a natural comedian, able to mimic and exaggerate accents for humorous effect in a way that reminded me of Carol Burnett’s classic comedy sketches—high praise indeed.

Alejo Vietti’s costumes are terrific; when Man Number One and Man Number Two transform into a husband and wife team who run a Scottish inn, tartan plaid and all, I literally laughed out loud. And no matter what scene in the play, the costumes fit the period and the humor of the scene, whether it calls for a train conductor or a high-strung temptress. The sets (Hugh Landwehr) are a weird mix of hyper-realistic (as in the box theater scenes) and downright minimalist (as in on trains and running over the moors). But that works well, as it gives the actors a chance to use their exceptional stage skills to indicate exactly what they’re doing and where they are. My only quibble with this play is that some of the jokes, even when they are very good, run a bit long, undercutting their comedic edge. But that is a problem with the adaptation and the writing, not the actors or their performances.

Some could easily label this comedic adaptation of a darker and more serious story “silly,” but the skills required to carry multiple roles and quickly shifting scenes must be seriously superlative, and these four actors really outdid themselves in this clever camped-up version of a classic. Hitchcock once said, “Drama is life with the dull bits cut out,” and there are no dull bits to this fast-paced, standing-ovation-deserving summer fare playing with additional performances into September.

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