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A CurtainUp Review
The Thirty Nine Steps
As of March 25, 2010, this clever show moved into its fourth home: New World Stages on West 50th Street, which is becoming the favorite address for Broadway shows that need to downsize but still have plenty of life left in them. The Off-Brodway cast: John Behlmann as Richard Hannay, Cameron Folmar as Man #2, Jamie Jackson as Man #1 and Kate MacCluggage as Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret. This production will close 1/16/11 after 23 previews and 318 performances Off-Broadway and over 1,100 total performances on Broadway.

The 39 Steps Revisited
39 steps--Robards
Jason Robards and Jennifer Ferrin
Since I thought having Charles Edwards reprise the role he created in London for the Broadway production insured its success on this side of the pond, I revisited the show in its new digs at the Cort Theater and with Sam Robards playing Richard Hanay. Without straining unduly to sound like a native Brit, Robards does just fine and dandy. He's not only funny and authentic, and you couldn't wish for a more debonair Hanay.

How has the show settled into its new home? While the seats at the elegantly renovated American Airlines Theater provide more leg room, the older Cort Theater is more intimate and thus almost better suited to this show which manages to make so much of ingenious stagecraft and incredible versatility and turn-on-a-dime timing by the actors.



Jenniffer Ferrin, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders are still a riot but now that I've seen how smoothly Robards stepped into Hannay's shoes (and same suit and tie), I think The 39 Steps will continue to keep audiences laughing even when Ferrin and Saunders depart on October 26th and Jeffrey Kuhn takes over as Man #1 and Francesca Faridany will play the roles of Annabella Schmidt, Margaret and Pamela.

Naturally, in live theater, things change all the time. For example, when Hannay finds himself mistaken for an electioneering politician and has to make an impromptu speech, he fumbles for a word to make some sense. It's been just long enough since my initial viewing for that word —Change— to seem as if it was a script addition to give the scene more relevance, an assumption supported by the extra-loud laughs from the audience. But on checking my comments below, the only thing that's changed between then and now, is the new meaning the current presidential campaign has brought to it.

The Cort Theatre is at 138 W. 48th Street, between 7th and 6th Avenues.—Re-reviewed by Elyse Sommer, 9/18/08.
Update: The show will play its final performance January 10, 10010, after 770 performances in three different Broadway theaters and numerous cast replacements.

The 39 Steps Arrives on Broadway
By Elyse Sommer

Have you heard of the 39 steps?—Annabella Smith, the mysterious woman Richard Hannay meets at the theater.
What's that? A pub?—Richard, not realizing how that code word for a mysterious spy ring will turn his boring life into a madcap chase around the Scottish countryside.
the 39 Steps
Jennifer Ferrin and Charles Edwards< in The 39 Steps
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
Hitchcock's reputation as the master of suspense began in 1935 with The 39 Steps. Photos of its stars, Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, appear in numerous film anthologies and histories. No Hitchcock retrospective would be considered complete without it. The DVD is available at all rental outlets and many libraries. Still, given subsequent more sophisticated work in this romantic thriller genre, including many by Hitchcock, The 39 Steps is something of a film buff's artifact and a most unlikely prospect for a modern day stage vehicle. But to prove that you should never say never, along came Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon with the idea of using the power of imaginative stagecraft and extremely energetic actors to play up the humor Hitchcock introduced to this genre. As adapted by Patrick Barlow, the concept took shape and The 39 Steps became a 4-actor, comic spoof that nabbed an Olivier Award for Best Comedy and now has Broadway audiences in stitches.

Fortunately Charles Edwards, has come along to play Richard Hannay, the role he created for the London production that Neil Dowden reviewed last year and that's posted below these comments. Maria Aitken again directs and the show features the same ingenious look and sound as in London.

While having Edwards on board insures that the leading man is as debonair and amusing here as in London, much of the New York production's success relies on the other actors . All too often British plays lose something with an American cast. But not to worry.

Jennifer Ferrin, makes an impressive Broadway debut playing not only Pamela, but also the slinky foreigner in black who ends up with a knife in her back and the browbeaten wife of a prayer-spouting Scot. Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders are an inspired pair of clowns. They switch characters and costumes with lightning speed, often right in front of your eyes. In short, all the positive things Neil had to say about the production he reviewed apply to the New York transfer.

Saunders is especially memorable as the robot-like Mr. Memory. Burton's multi-tasking includes gender switches and at one time has him channelling Peter Lorre, an actor who during the 50s often appeared in Hitchcock's popular TV mystery series. References to other Hitchcock endeavors for the big screen (North by North West, Rear Window, Vertigo) are cleverly woven into the plot and play a part in what makes this 39 Steps such a hoot. Opening as it does during the much publicized contests to pick our next Republican and Democratic presidential nominees, the referential quips also provide an opportunity for a place specific touch: In the scene when the ever adaptable Hannay finding himself mistaken as a candidate for a Scottish political office, fires away with a speech that promises — you guessed it — "Change!"

If there's one scene where all this cleverness seems to go from a comic boil to a simmer, it's when Hannay and Pamela are shackled to each other and check into a small hotel in the guise of runaway lovers. Having only recently watched the DVD in preparation for seeing the stage adaptation, I found this slowing down of the pace true of the film as well. On the other hand, it's during that scene that Pamela strips off her wet stockings, with Hannay's shackled hand on her leg — a memorably daring moment in 1935.

My watching the DVD before seeing the play raises the question of whether anyone who is not familiar with the movie can follow and appreciate this madcap staging. The answer is yes and no. You'll have no problem following the plot and the physical comedy and wordplay stand on their own, which also means that kids as young as ten or eleven can enjoy it. However, a familiarity with the movie will heighten your appreciation of how much the conceit of four actors and scenery that, as Neil puts it, also sends up the world of am dram or amateur theater with its frames for doors, streams made of fabric and other simple scenic artifices. Neil's description of the comedy as a MacGuffin is, by the way, a term and technique popularized by Hitchcock. As he explained it in a 1939 lecture: "[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the 'MacGuffin.' It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is most always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers."

With newspapers and TV broadcasts full of troubling and depressing news, you could do a lot worse than to follow Richard Hannay's opening scene resolve to find escape at the theater with "something trivial and utterly pointless." The utterly pointless but delightful The 39 Steps is sure to fill the bill.

PRODUCTION NOTES
Scroll past these production notes for Neil Dowden's review
THE 39 STEPS
Simon Corble & Nobby Dimon's concept adapted by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Maria Aitken. Cast: Charles Edwards ( Richard Hannay), Jennifer Ferrin (Annabella, Pamela, Margaret), Cliff Saunders (Clown), Arnie Burton ( clown).
Sets and Costumes: Peter McKintosh
Lighting: Kevin Adams
Dialect Coach: Stephen Gabis
Original Movement created by Toby Sedgewick; additional movement by Christopher Bayes
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes with one intermission
Roundabout's American Airlines Theatre, 227 West 42 Street,(212) 719-1300 or roundabouttheatre.org
From 1/04/08 to 3/23/08; opening 1/15/08.
Tue— Sat at 8pm; Wed, Sat, Sun at 2pm.
Tickets, $51.25-96.25.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at January 15th matinee

The 39 Steps London reviewed by by Neil Dowden on September 20th, 2006 at the Criterion, where it continues to play until February 9th.

This highly entertaining staging of John Buchan's classic story of derring-do was first seen at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year and has now transferred from the Tricycle to the West End. It is based on Alfred Hitchcock's famous 1935 film rather than the original 1915 novel.

Buchan wrote a gripping straight thriller, into which Hitchcock introduced humour and romance, but Patrick Barlow's adaptation (from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon) sends up the whole genre of stiff upper lip heroic exploits. And as a self-consciously theatrical spoof it works hilariously well.

Maria Aitken's frenetically paced and visually inventive production uses just four actors to tell the story which, to use a Hitchcockian term, revolves around a "MacGuffin" — that is, what actually drives the plot forward doesn't really matter as the audience simply goes along with the flow while enjoying the set pieces.

After debonair gentleman-adventurer Richard Hannay (Charles Edwards) discovers that a foreign enemy spy ring called "The Thirty Nine Steps" is trying to smuggle scientific-military secrets out of Britain, he sets out to stop them single-handedly while also being chased by the police who, wrongly, of course, suspect him of murder. Or whatever.

The joy of the show is in seeing how a bewildering succession of scenarios and characters are evoked so splendidly with the creative use of props and costumes. In Peter McKintosh's innovative design, packing cases and stepladders are used for a breathless chase across the roof of the Flying Scotsman travelling over the Forth Bridge, while silhouettes on a screen and dried ice suggest Hannay's pursuit over the mist-bound moors of the Scottish Highlands.

This affectionate parody of Buchan and Hitchcock (which features music from both Psycho and Vertigo) is done with such style that it never becomes tiresome. In fact, the show also sends up the world of am dram, as much fun is had by moving doors and window frames with comic artifice to facilitate sudden entrances and exits, and there are plenty of "deliberate mistakes" when lights come on off-cue or wigs fall off.

Edwards plays the square-jawed Hannay with just the right amount of phlegmatic self-assurance, employing a bemused expression or arched eyebrow to great effect, but not going over the top. The rest of the cast are at full throttle in their multiple roles.

The excellent Catherine McCormack moves from being a black-clad, German-accented femme fatale, to a shy, impressionable crofter's wife, and a dumb but genteel blonde handcuffed to Hannay who reluctantly falls for his charms. Rupert Degas and Simon Gregor show a chameleon-like, gender-bending virtuosity in playing all the other parts, including bumbling policemen, enemy agents, local Highlanders and (respectively) the gloating Nazi villain Professor Jordan and the robotic yet pathetic Mr Memory, who is "programmed" to answer any question he is asked — even if it means betraying his nefarious employers, The Thirty Nine Steps.

THE THIRTY NINE STEPS
Adapted from John Buchan novel/Alfred Hitchcock film by Patrick Barlow (from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon)
Directed by Maria Aitken
Starring: Charles Edwards, Catherine McCormack, Rupert Degas, Simon Gregor
Design: Peter McKintosh
Lighting: Ian Scott
Sound: Mic Pool
Movement: Toby Sedgwick
A West Yorkshire Playhouse production
Running time: Two hours with one interval
Box Office: 020 7413 1437
Booking to 13th January 2007
Reviewed by Neil Dowden based on September 20th 2006 performance at the Criterion Theatre, Piccadilly Circus, London W1 (Tube: Piccadilly Circus)




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Leonard Maltin's Classic Movie Guide
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