The 39 Steps Review: Thriller Reborn As Slapstick Now Off-Broadway
“Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” a play based on the 1935 film, with the same plot and most of the same 150 characters as the Hitchcock spy thriller – except that it’s a slapstick comedy performed by a cast of just four — ended its two-year run on Broadway in January. It has now opened Off-Broadway three months later, one of the few Broadway shows ever to transfer to Off-Broadway. (Avenue Q, which began Off-Broadway, has also returned there.) But to put this in perspective: The Helen Hayes, the last of the three Broadway theaters where “The 39 Steps” was presented, has a total of 597 seats. Stage 1 of New World Stages, where the play has moved, has 499 seats. It is six blocks away, which unfortunately is more than 39 steps away, even with an exceptionally long stride, but not very much more.
The truth is, there is a new cast, and there are 98 fewer seats to fill in the theater, but not much otherwise has changed — the same Tony-winning lighting design and sound design; same Tony-nominated scenic and costume design; same award-winning director — except perhaps a change in the perception of the show by the audience, or at least those theatergoers who have seen it before.
As the curtain opens, the new Richard Hannay (John Behlmann), the everyman hero (and wrong man accused) of “The 39 Steps,” is still in his British study wearing requisite mustache and tweeds; he is still restless and bored; he still longs for “something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless.”
“I know,” he still says as if making a new discovery, “I’ll go to the theater!” — which still gets a big laugh.
“The 39 Steps” is in fact, still pointless, and still funny, but it is no longer a fresh serving of the very British brand of manic silliness that we Americans most associate with Monty Python, and before that Beyond The Fringe. The producers are apparently convinced that they have a comic evergreen in “The 39 Steps,” that theatergoers will forever have a taste for this frenzy. There are enough productions around the English-speaking world (in England, where it originated, but also Maryland, Cincinnati, Houston etc.) to indicate they may be correct.
I still have a taste for it, in pieces. Here is a montage of some of those pieces from the current Off-Broadway production of “The 39 Steps”:
Above all, the show is an exercise in making clockwork timing seem like improvisational comedy. Jamie Jackson and Cameron Folmar, who each play about 50 characters, are clowns of the highest order. Behlmann is as comically stiff-upper-lipped as Kate MacCluggage is suitably demure, crazed or dead. Here is the play’s unusual death scene:
There is surely a fifth if not a sixth performer as essential as the heralded four, although they are nowhere credited – and that’s the backstage dresser and prop person who make the unending series of sight gags possible. What works best in “The 39 Steps” is the clever use of not just a minimal cast, but of the hilariously inventive sets and props – almost a spoof of the desperate resourcefulness of amateur theatrical productions
Yet “The 39 Steps” is too long for an “I Love Lucy”-like endless rerun, and too wacky to be taken seriously as just the latest adaptation of the convoluted 1915 novel by John Buchan. (There have been at least three film versions of it since Hitchcock’s). It’s not quite a spoof of Hitchcock’s film, which is a good thing, since “The 39 Steps” film is not really spoofable. It’s witty on its own, for one, and it is also far less familiar to Americans than some of Hitchcock’s later thrillers. Viewers of the first video above will instantly recognize the jokey allusion to the crop-duster scene with Cary Grant in “North by Northwest”; there are several such comic takes on other Hitchcock films – the ones made in Hollywood. Theatergoers don’t need to have seen the Hitchcock film to appreciate the play, but it can’t hurt, so here it is: [Give it a full minute after pressing play, and If it still doesn't work for some reason, try watching "The 39 Steps" on Hulu].
Enjoy both “39 Steps” — one a witty if somewhat creaky thriller worth seeing for the clues to what Hitchcock would become; the other a vehicle for gags, still with gas.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow, based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and the book by John Buchan; directed by Maria Aitken; sets and costumes by Peter McKintosh; lighting by Kevin Adams; sound by Mic Pool.
John Behlmann, Cameron Folmar, Jamie Jackson, Kate MacCluggage
Running time: 1 hour and 48 minutes, including one 15 minute intermission
Ticket prices: $69.50 – $89.50. Student rush: $27.50. Premium seat price: $126.50
Buy tickets to The 39 Steps
Children under 4 will not be admitted to the theater.
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