Stairway to satirical suspense


By Scott Harrah


Adapted by Patrick Barlow

Based on an original concept by Simon Corble & Nobby Dimon

Based on the book by John Buchan

Directed by Maria Aitken

The American Airlines Theatre

227 West 42nd St.

(212-719-1300; roundabouttheatre.org)

Classic Alfred Hitchcock films are known for many things, but comedy is not normally one of them. This British import — which won an Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2007 during its West End run in London — is full of many comic surprises and slapstick humor, but the jokes wear thin in the second act. Based on Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller of the same name, “The 39 Steps” fairly follows the movie’s storyline, and also includes numerous satirical references to his other famous works like “Vertigo,” “The Birds,” and “Psycho.” Although this four-person play is marvelously entertaining at times, it ultimately loses proverbial steam but will please Hitchcock aficionados.

The basic premise of this carefully adapted version of “The 39 Steps” is taking a movie, dissecting its action-oriented scenes, and breaking them down into funny reenactments that actually work on the stage. Patrick Barlow, in his whimsical script, recreates — with the careful direction of Maria Aitken — a train from London to Edinburgh (portrayed with lighting, sound and four boxes) and an action-packed scene near a foggy Scottish loch (complete with shadow-puppet “cameos” by the late Hitchcock himself and the Loch Ness Monster), both things that might normally only be done in high-tech movies on green screens and seem almost impossible tasks for the Broadway stage. Still, such scenes are executed well (although sometimes on the intentionally cheesy side), and loaded with dry British wit. None of this could be accomplished without the remarkable cast, especially the two supporting actors, the incredibly gifted and versatile Cliff Saunders (listed in the Playbill as simply “Man #1) and the equally deft Arnie Burton (called “Man #2”).

The star of the show is British actor Charles Edwards (who’s worked alongside such grande dames of the stage and screen as Judi Dench and Julie Walters) as Richard Hannay, the stereotypical stuffy, acerbic Englishman who makes the mistake of attending the theater one night and gets caught in a web of international intrigue involving German-accented villains that set him up after a hilarious but rather grisly murder. Jennifer Ferrin, the only biological woman in the show — the men do various drag roles — plays numerous characters, from the mysterious, purported spy Annabelle Schmidt to an offbeat Scottish housewife, Margaret. Edwards has great comic timing and Ferrin is serviceable at best in most roles, but this is really Saunders and Burton’s show. At various times, the two men portray police detectives, Scottish bagpipers, a Scottish housekeeper and his wife, train conductors, and a vaudeville-type act — hamming up each role with aplomb in virtually every scene.

The only problem here is that Patrick Barlow’s script often relies too heavily on gimmickry and sacrifices substance as a result. The characters are too cartoonish and one-dimensional, and audiences don’t get to know much about the protagonist Richard Hannay, other than the fact that he’s a jaded chap caught up in serious trouble. Halfway through the second act, all the mayhem starts to drag and lacks the edge-of-your-seat suspense that is Hitchcock’s trademark.

Fortunately, with a running time of less than two hours (with an intermission), the show is over before anyone can get too tired of the thematic holes and narrative snags. “The 39 Steps” doesn’t try to be a highly polished, frame-for-frame stage adaptation of a Hitchcock film, and it certainly works as a forum for multitalented actors to deliver madcap, screwball entertainment that’s always a crowd-pleaser.