Moonbox’s ‘The 39 Steps’ is an exhilarating escape
BOSTON – I have two new nominations for The Hardest Working Men in Show Business.
Their names are Matthew Zahnzinger and Bob Mussett.
Along with Kevin Cirone and Sarah Gazdowicz,, they make Moonbox Productions’ “The 39 Steps” at the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts an exhilarating theatrical experience.
“The 39 Steps” is a lot of things — Alfred Hitchcock meets cheeky British humor meets film noir – but playwright Patrick Barlow has fashioned a comedy thriller with some creative low-tech staging that’s a a large part of its charm.
The play won the 2007 Olivier Award for Best Comedy and the Huntington Theatre Company’s 2007 production transferred to Broadway under the direction of Maria Aitken, where it received six Tony nominations, winning two.
Barlow adapted the original concept and production of a four-actor version of the story by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, which in turn was based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, which in turn was inspired by John Buchan’s 1915 novel.
Cirone plays Londoner Richard Hannay, Gazdowicz the three women he becomes entangled with along the way, and Zahnzinger and Mussett combine to play every other actor in the show: heroes, villains, men, women, children and even the occasional inanimate object, about 150 characters in all..
They often change characters in the blink of an eye or play multiple characters at once, grabbing garments or hats from two racks strategically placed in the rear of the theater.
It is not a stretch to call the four-member cast one of the finer examples of ensemble acting for the 2017-18 theater season.
It is London, April 1935, and 36-year-old Richard Hannay is a bit bored in his dull little flat. He decides to take in a show when a beautiful woman named Annabella Schmidt (Gazdowicz) plops down beside him and fires off a pistol.
That sets off a chain of events that ends up with Annabella murdered in his apartment, and Richard becomes the target of a nationwide manhunt and a ring of spies, both of whom pursue Hannay across the United Kingdom.
That includes a stop in an almost unpronounceable Scottish village – the mere mention of which is enough to trigger the sound of bagpipes – and a madcap chase across Scotland, not to mention a hair-raising encounter with the mysterious, villainous Professor Jordan as Hannay attempts to stay free long enough to unravel the mystery of “The 39 Steps.”
While the entire cast is excellent, I have long ago ceased to be surprised by the versatility and talent of Zahnzinger, especially here as he authors several different types of Scottish burrs, effortlessly moving between genders when need be. Anyone who has sampled his comic talents in shows such as Reagle’s “Crazy for You” can imagine what they’re in store for.
It takes a skilled two-man team to pull off the countless number of characters done with quick changes or a doff of the hat, and Mussett is right there with Zahnzinger, rolling trunks and crates around the stage.
Cirone plays it just right as the stolid Hannay, shaken from his quiet life to embark on a quest to save his country, discovering along the way strengths he never knew he had, a reluctant hero rising to the challenge.
Gadzowicz is called upon to play several central female characters, including the ill-fated Annabella and Pamela, who gets entangled and connected (quite literally) to the story after identifying Hannay to police, and she provides a winning romantic heroine for Cirone to play against.
The piece also requires – and gets – an incredible amount of coordination between cast and crew.
Congrats to director Allison Olivia Choat for pulling it all together, because this is a show that could run right off the rails if everyone’s not on the same page.
“The 39 Steps” is also a high technical achievement for Moonbox, what with its intricate sound design, use of props, musicals snippets and sound effects, and myriad lighting cues, so hats off to the entire design team.
That includes director Choat on down to assistant director Arthur Gomez, stage mangers Amy Lehrmitt and Emily Cuerdon, set designer John Paul Devlin, lighting designer Jeffrey E. Salzberg, costume designer Erica DeSautels, sound designer Dan Costello, and properties/wardrobe manager Emily Rosser, just to name a few of those involved.
A few minutes before a recent performance began, Zahnzinger and Mussett came onto the stage, doing what appeared to be warmups with the props, apparently preparing for strenuous activity of some kind. A few minutes into “The 39 Steps,” you were no longer wondering why.
Moonbox Productions presents “The 39 Steps” by Patrick Barlow. Directed by Allison Olivia Choat. At the Plaza Theatre at the Boston Center for the Arts through Dec. 9. moonbox.org.