Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps: A Review

11 Mar

Alley Theatre through March 28


In the past few seasons, the Alley has developed an annoying tendency to vamp, mug and otherwise camp its way through shows (especially scripts that stylistically are past their prime) that aren’t necessarily the better for it. Sometimes it’s just a wink at the audience when the audience least wants to be winked at. Otherwise, it’s a whole ridiculous scene. 

It can he hoped that with the company’s Pythonesque romp through the ruins of British thriller novelist John Buchan and especially the Fat Man himself, Alfred Hitchcock, at least four of our best actors have gotten this out of their systems for a while. The 39 Steps by Patrick Barlow is hilarious, though sometimes it knows it is a bit too much – makes a bit too much of how easily it can make us laugh with this particular brand of antics. But then, as with the best Monty Python – or for that matter, the best of Steve Martin, with echoes of Gene Wilder directed by Mel Brooks – that becomes part of the joke as well. The opening performance last night had several technical glitches (a knife in a woman’s back that just wouldn’t stay there, a crucial pair of handcuffs that broke in two), and with a pained glance at the audience, maybe a quickly inserted line, the audience got to laugh it off as well. 

If you love Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller films – you know, North by Northwest, Psycho, The Birds, Vertigo, Rear Window, The Man Who Knew Too Much, and, yes, even The 39 Steps – you are in for a ride. There’s even a quick pit stop for the iconic black-and-white TV series Hitchcock hosted in America in the 1950s and 1960s. You don’t necessarily have to catch all the film-buff references; in fact, you’d probably laugh if you just dropped in from some country that has no cinema and speaks no English. But the more you know, the more you’ll laugh. 

The biggest joke in The 39 Steps, other than this rabid onslaught of motion-picture trivia, is that a mere four actors play something like 150 roles. And actually, since Todd Waite plays troubled-but-innocent Hitchcock hero Richard Hannay throughout, and Elizabeth Bunch tries on “only” three women, that leaves two actors. Jeffrey Bean and John Tyson play everybody else, changing costumes backstage in a frenzy – and of course, this show being what it is, making way too much hay with this particular sunshine. There is the ridiculously wrong hat that stays on, the silly business with two spies in trenchcoats waiting under a London lamppost, several flurries in which the actors take turns becoming each other’s characters, and even one costume that’s TWO characters, split down the middle for turning right or left as the script requires. Everything about this is totally silly, but like the bits of projection and the shadow shows of everything from a chase across Scotland to the silhouetted Bates Motel from Psycho, it’s also inspired. 

Director Mark Shanahan, who first caught our eye at the Alley (appropriately enough) acting in a play called Hitchcock Blonde, keeps the action ripping along through Hugh Landwehr’s properly reverential but also tongue-in-cheek set. The whole thing is one big homage to one of cinema’s true masters. And if Hitchcock’s stylistic touches aren’t always timeless, then The 39 Steps proves that the jokes spun off from them certainly are.

Photos: (above) Todd Waite, Jeffrey Bean and John Tyson; (below) Elizabeth Bunch, in Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps at the Alley Theatre.


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