Play: The 39 Steps
Group: Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Venue: Browning Mainstage, Loretto-Hilton Center, 130 Edgar Road
Dates: Through January 31
Tickets: From $18; contact 314-968-4925 or www.repstl.org
Story: Englishman Richard Hannay lives a comfortable if uneventful life in 1930s London, and is painfully aware of that fact. His dull days are abruptly altered, however, one evening while taking in a performance of “Mr. Memory” at the London Palladium. Unexpectedly, a mysterious and beautiful woman enters his balcony box, announces herself a spy and implores him to take her home and away from the pursuit of a nasty network known as “The 39 Steps.” Of course, he complies, but unfortunately for Richard, she’s subsequently murdered in his home and he becomes the chief suspect. Fleeing the long arm of Scotland Yard with a handful of clues about the nefarious organization, he sets out to get the villains, save the empire and clear his name in the process.
Highlights: Adapted by Patrick Barlow from a novel by John Buchan that was turned into the memorable 1935 film directed by Alfred Hitchcock, The 39 Steps is a splendid tonic to shake off the cabin fever of our arctic January weather. In contrast to the tension and suspense of the master director’s movie, however, Barlow’s version is a riotous send-up of Hitchcock’s chilling oeuvre, in which just four performers assay the roles of some 140 or so quirky characters.
Actually, Paul DeBoy handles the pivotal role of Hannay, while Marina Squerciati plays three parts, leaving the vast majority of roles in the superbly capable hands of Michael Keyloun and Tyrone Mitchell Henderson. Borrowing liberally from the fabled frolics of Monty Python, they manically change character with the addition of a wig or a hat or a frumpy sweater, sometimes three or four parts in machine-gun-fire succession. It’s all marvelously zany to observe.
Other Info: Under Martha Banta’s mostly inspired direction, the laughs are full throttle for the first two-thirds of the first act before the action unexpectedly limps towards intermission. After a somewhat sluggish opening to the second act, Banta’s pacing picks up again and races in inspired fashion towards the comedy’s inspired conclusion. The plot faithfully follows Hitchcock’s film, and there are also myriad references to several of his famous cinematic works, from Psycho and North by Northwest to Vertigo, The Birds, The Man Who Knew Too Much and perhaps even Rear Window, even including one of Hitchcock’s noted cameos. Pay attention, though, lest you miss the glimpses amidst the maelstrom of action.
DeBoy plays the lead role in top-notch, stiff upper lip, ‘cheerio’ fashion while also proving himself adept at some physical comedy as well, notably in a handcuff segment with the charming Squerciati. She’s a hot herself in three roles, from the outrageously accented femme fatale to the no-nonsense lass Hannay meets on a train who naturally becomes his love interest to the wide-eyed and simple-minded wife of a taciturn Scottish farmer, complete with a galumphing gait that is a highlight of this highlight-laden show.
Keyloun and Henderson, though, are the true underpinnings of frenzy (good title for a Hitchcock flick) in this madcap tale. They are inspired throughout, cavorting in the finest, over-the-top Python fashion and taking advantage of every cheesy prop within reach, including a pair of ‘sheepdogs’ that are priceless to behold.
There’s some wonderfully atmospheric design work, including the clever set design of James Wolk that includes Hannay’s comfortable London digs, a ramshackle train (with wind effects provided by the cast), and some handsome balconies for the London Palladium scenes. Mic Pool’s sound design incorporates not only the noise of menacing gunshots and moving locomotives but also a salute to Hitchcock with coy references to the musical scores of Bernard Herrmann. Lighting designer Matt Frey’s illumination runs the gamut from bright stage lights to foggy moors, while Lou Bird’s costumes, particularly wigs and hats, get a thorough workout from the cast.
From an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, this 39 Steps features the recipe of many cooks in its kitchen. Essentially, however, it’s a mighty tasty concoction of humor, one The Rep’s late and great PR director, Brad Graham, would truly appreciate and you most likely will, too.
Rating: A 4.5 on a scale of 1-to-5.