The chase is on in Gloucester Stage’s ‘The 39 Steps’
BOSTON – The stage is bare except for the traditional “ghost light” as actors drift in and out while Gloucester Stage Company Artistic Director Robert Walsh greets the audience with his “curtain speech.”
But soon it will be awash in murder, intrigue and a seemingly endless cast of characters.
“The 39 Steps” is not easily pinned down. It is Alfred Hitchcock meets cheeky British humor meets film noir. Putting it all into a theatrical mixing bowl, playwright Patrick Barlow has fashioned a comedy thriller with some creative low-tech staging that’s 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. In his skillful adaptation of the various works that contribute to his piece, Barlow succeeds poking fun at several genres while paying homage to them at the same time.
It is London, April 1935, and 36-year-old Richard Hannay (Lewis D. Wheeler) is a bit bored in his dull little flat. He decides to take in a West End show when a beautiful woman named Annabella Schmidt (Amanda Collins) plops down beside him and fires off a pistol. She implores him to allow her to take refuge in his flat.
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.
Collins, late off her award-winning performance in the title role in Merrimack Rep’s “Miss Bennet: Christmas at Pemberley,” is tasked to play three very different women – including Schmidt — who become involved with Hannay as he chases in a spy ring that threatens to deliver vital defense secret as to the Germans.
The chase includes a stop in an almost unpronounceable Scottish village and a madcap journey across Scotland and back to London, not to mention a hair-raising encounter with the mysterious, villainous Professor Jordan (Paul Melendy) as Hannay attempts to stay free long enough to unravel the mystery of “The 39 Steps.”
A big part of the fun is the low-tech stage magic Thus, through the magic of shadow puppetry, we have Hannay pursued by a plane much like Cary Grant was in Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest,” one of many Hitchcock movies that are alluded to during the production.
Melendy and Gabriel Kuttner combine to play every other part in the show not played by Collins or Wheeler: heroes, villains, men, women, and children, about 150 characters in all.
They often change characters in the blink of an eye or play multiple characters at once.
Melendy is given the task of inhabiting a dizzying array of improbable characters, and a range of Scottish burrs, including Mrs. McGarrigle, the co-proprietor of a Scottish inn who has seen better days, along with her inn.
Kuttner is right there with him, including his portrayal of “Mr. Memory,” the ill-fated music hall performer who holds the key to the spy ring.
Wheeler is well-cast as the dry as dust Hannay, an everyman who finds himself forced to become a superhero of sorts, while Collins shines as each of the three women, including one character who sees something in Hannay he didn’t know was there.
Director Robert Walsh and nonpareil sound designer David Wilson gave rising college senior Malachi Rosen the chance to handle the duties of an onstage foley editor (sound effects man) and he does so admirably and possesses the musical chops to lend a hand in that regard. The live effects – even when they are just off, earning glares form the cast – are part of the high camp vibe of the piece, joined with other low-tech stagecraft to portray, say, a death-defying escape from a moving train.
It’s all great fun and expertly done, the perfect summer comedy while both you and your brain are on vacation.
The Gloucester Stage Company production of “The 39 Steps.” Written by Patrick Barlow, based on the novel by John Buchan and the movie by Alfred Hitchcock. Directed by Robert Walsh. Scenic design by Jenna McFarland Lord. Lighting design by Russ Swift. Costume design by Miranda Kau Giurleo. Sound design by David Wilson. Props design by Emme Shaw. At the Gloucester Stage Company through July 28. Gloucesterstage.com.