The laugh quotient on the play version of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps leaps like a shotgun high-rise elevator to the 100th floor of hilarity. Make no mistake, this legit stage version plays like a farce with melodramatic mugging and Hitchcock puns galore.
On a side note, I once watched a one-person show where the actor put on the Aristophanes comedy The Birds. The thesp played all the characters and brought the production in at a trim twenty minutes. The 39 Steps gives off that same crazy insanity vibe throughout its breakneck unrolling.
Alley Theatre regulars Elizabeth Bunch and Todd Waite play the lead male (Richard Hannay) and the play’s main three femmes (Pamela, Annabella and Margaret) respectively, both to great result.
Two other roles, Man #1 and Man #2, are played by Bruce Warren (making his Alley debut) and Mark Price. Both have extensive Broadway and theatrical credits. The duo literally play ever other role in the play, and while I lost count that would include Mr. Memory, various police detectives, farmers, inn keepers and their wives, passers by, even more police officials and the main bad guy who is missing half of his little finger. (Don’t ask me which hand; I get confused as to which part of the stage is Stage Left or Stage Right.)
The source that Hitch used for his 1935 movie was John Buchan’s 1915 titular novel. Hitchcock never made an out-and-out farce, however, and in his entire filmography only directed one comedy (Mr. and Mrs. Smith in 1941). Yes, there is humor in Hitchcock films even in his most serious efforts. But it’s a mordant taste, dwelling in black humor and sexual innuendo — the opposite of what is going on here.
Patrick Barlow’s 2005 adaptation seems more interested in exploring time-proven theatrical gimmicks while using the best of Hitch’s twists to propel the play to even more uncanny parody territory.
Hitchcock was a known director in the UK on the basis of earlier silent and sound films, but it was The 39 Steps that launched him to international fame.
In the film, an innocent man goes on the run with the police hot on his trail. This is the case with so many of Hitch’s films from Young and Innocent (1937), Sabotage (1942), North by Northwest (1959) to Frenzy (1967). In The 39 Steps, the innocent man is handcuffed to a woman.
In both the movie and the play there is a scene where Pamela and Richard have to go to sleep, chained to each other. The way the scene unfolds as she takes off her stockings with his hand attached to hers brings full disclosure to the proceedings.
Hannay stumbles into an espionage plot when he welcomes a strange woman back to his apartment after a stage show featuring Mr. Memory, a human computer who can recite any fact. Mr. Memory will begin and end the (film) play.
In the movie the women, a spy, enters the room with an as-yet-unseen knife in her back. (Hitch would most famously use this again in North by Northwest). In the play, the knife in the back is obviously played for laughs. The thrust is that Hannay can’t get out from under her dead body, so he has to slide out underneath.
Hannay escapes from authorities more than once, and at one point walks into an auditorium only to end up giving an ad hoc speech to the assembled, with his handcuff hand in his pocket and his free hand conducting a symphony of temperament.
Direction by Mark Shanahan emphasizes the motions of the moment – for instance, when the characters are in a car, or railway, they sway to and fro. When they are on the run, they appear to walk fast. Backdrops add info that informs the setting, or better still, the joke of the minute.
Allusions to other Hitchcock films abound, including musical cues that evoke North by Northwest and Vertigo, among others, and clever one-liners that drop the title of a Hitch film into the natural flow of dialogue.
What makes this particular production so sweet and secure is that it nails every beat.
The 39 Steps plays on the main stage at the Alley Theater until Sept. 3.