Review: The 39 Steps by Austin Playhouse
by Michael Meigs
Austin Playhouse scheduled Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps for a run of almost two months, but I didn't manage to use my season tickets until the penultimate weekend of the run. Not that I expected to be disappointed; The 39 Steps won an Olivier award for best comedy in 2007 and the Broadway version, with the added tag tying it to Hitchcock, ran for two years before moving off-Broadway. And not too far off Broadway -- to New World Stages at 340 West 50th Street, where it is still playing. A road version did a limited tour in 2009-2010.
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps was nominated for six Tony awards in 2008 and walked away with two. The marketing people don't mention that those Tonys were for best lighting design and best sound design.
Never mind all that. The important thing is that it's more fun than a barrel of actors. The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, England, pioneered this one, applying the ingenious notion of using only four actors to put onstage the entire plot of the Hitchcock movie. Here in Austin, Benjamin Summers as Richard Hannay is the only player with an immutable role (unless you count his momentary masquerade as a milkman in order to flee from the police). Lara Toner gets to play three characters -- a German-accented femme fatale who rapidly becomes a femme morte, much to Hannay's surprise, a dreamy lassie in the wilds of Scotland, and a self-assured young blonde who winds up kidnapped and handcuffed to the fleeing Hannay.
The comic duo of Michael Stuart and David Stahl plays everyone else in the movie -- oops, I mean, in the play. Bad guys, local notables, a dour Scots crofter, an innkeeper and his wife, the red-turbaned mysterious professor, a pair of vaudeville clowns and many, many more. In fact, the two of them are listed in the program simply as Clown #1 and Clown #2. They change identities as easily as changing hats, and sometimes they're carrying three hats at a time.
The 39 Steps pioneered the British adventure novel. John Buchan wrote it in 1916, in the midst of the Great War, creating Richard Hannay as a colonial mining engineer from South Africa, devoted to the Empire but a bit lonely and cut off from London society. Buchan, a prolific biographer and novelist, wrote six books featuring Hannay, four of which were reprinted in a softcover omnibus edition in 2006 (I know, because I purchased it from Book People a couple of years ago and enjoyed the yarns immensely).
Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film was something of a pastiche of the novel, as Hitchcock and scriptwriters completely invented the vaudeville connection, the "Mr. Memory" spy conduit, and all three of the women characters we see in film and play. Buchan's Hannay does eventually meet and marry a courageous young woman something like the blonde, but that encounter doesn't occur until Mr. Standfast, the third of the Hannay novels. In the first Hannay novel, the 39 steps were the spies' escapeway on the eastern coast of England; in Hitchcock's film they do not exist at all, except as the name of a mysterious secret society.
This play is a wild chase, winding up -- significantly -- back at the vaudeville stage. The plot is thin as tissue paper, and that fact is part of the fun. Buchan's novel, a vivid tale of risk, outdoor adventure, threat and patriotism in wartime, went by degrees through Hitchcock's droll and entertaining film (among other cinema adaptatios) into the public consciousness and thence to this sketched-out, far-out evocation of a character who became a stereotype and a plot that birthed generations of thrillers. You laugh but you're not really moved or really engaged at any point; that's not the point. Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is a celebration of clowning and the comic theatre.
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