Story: Richard Hannay leads a quiet and boring life in the 1930s, an unremarkable bachelor who pines for adventure while reclining in his London flat. One night, he decides to take in a show at a London theater where “Mr. Memory” is performing his amazing feats of recall.
Hannay is unexpectedly joined there by a mysterious woman named Annabella Schmidt, who coyly invites herself back to his home. She informs Hannay that she is a spy who is being pursued by a pair of killers because she knows of some secret plot against the British government which involves “The 39 Steps.” Before she can tell him more, she is killed by a dagger thrown into her heart through an open window.
Soon, Hannay’s face is plastered on the front pages of London newspapers as a fugitive wanted for the murder of the young woman. He flees London, knowing that the only way to exonerate his name is to find the mastermind behind the plot against Great Britain from the clues left to him by Annabella.
Hannay journeys into Scotland in his quest to clear his name. On a train he encounters a young woman named Pamela Edwards, who quickly points him out to constables checking for him on the train. He escapes and continues to follow a map of the Scottish highlands left by Annabella, who had said it would lead to the spies who are seeking valuable British information.
Eventually Hannah comes into contact with the respected Professor Jordan, who turns out to be the deadly mastermind, but manages again to escape. He accidentally runs into Pamela once more just before both of them become targets of the professor’s hired assassins.
Can Hannah and Pamela flee once again to safety? Can Hannah discover what exactly is meant by “The 39 Steps”? Can he exonerate himself before Scotland Yard apprehends him and sends him to prison? Stay tuned.
Highlights: St. Louis Shakespeare offers its own take on Patrick Barlow’s hit comedy, which ran for nine years in London’s West End before closing in 2015.
Other Info: Barlow based his witty work on the 1935 suspense film of the same title directed by Alfred Hitchcock. That movie featured a screenplay by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay, who in turn based their story on the novel by John Buchan. In 1995 Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon adapted The 39 Steps to the stage, and in turn Barlow’s parody premiered a decade later.
Barlow’s inventive, chaotic comedy offers amusing allusions to several of Hitchcock’s films in its two acts and 90 minutes of frenzied activity. It’s designed for just four players, one of whom spends his entirety portraying Hannay and another playing Annabella, Pamela and the minor role of Margaret. The other two players are referred to as ‘clowns’ and play dozens of characters apiece.
Director Dustin Massie makes an interesting and humorous choice up front, having actually all four players introduced to the audience as ‘clowns’ in the style of European theatrical clowns. These clowns, says Massie in his director’s note, “exist only to entertain...(and) only exist when they have an audience.”
To that end, Massie sets this version in an abandoned theater, which is full of knickknacks and sundry props used by his players to tell the story of Richard Hannay and The 39 Steps. The short introduction features Phil Leveling, Kelly Schnider, Rebecca Loughridge and Brian Kappler pantomiming their way through their newly discovered treasure trove of toys before they settle into their roles.
Leveling brings to mind a young John Cleese with his lanky body and deadpan approach to the central role of Hannay. That’s fitting, since The 39 Steps can be derivative of Monty Python’s Flying Circus in its broad, slapstick approach to a panoply of small comic roles. His steady portrayal of the genial everyman Hannay suitably anchors the presentation, allowing the more outrageous comedy to be handled by Loughridge and Kappler.
Schmidt makes for a suitable foil to Leveling’s Hannay as the seductive Annabella, the coquettish Margaret and the prim and proper Pamela. Loughridge and Kappler capably handle the many roles of the clowns, although Kappler is pretty much unintelligible, ironically enough, as the mysterious Mr. Memory.
Too often, though, the gestures and mannerisms of various characters are repeated to the point of tedium, losing their laugh-inducing luster along the way. Additionally, The 39 Steps relies on lightning-fast scene changes for its comic mayhem, but Massie’s pace too often is sluggish and labored.
Devin Lowe’s scenic design imaginatively furnishes the abandoned theater setting, which Lowe also lights satisfactorily. Kayla Lindsay provides the period costumes, although it’s curious why Hannay wouldn’t be sporting a tie in 1930s England, especially at the theater. Massie and Michelle Paladin’s clever props design is a major plus for the presentation.
Here’s hoping that St. Louis Shakespeare can pick up the pace and enliven its approach to Barlow’s memorable and madcap foray into all things Hitchcock during its second weekend of performances.
Play: The 39 Steps
Company: St. Louis Shakespeare
Venue: Tower Grove Baptist Church, 4257 Magnolia Avenue
Dates: September 5, 6, 7
Artwork courtesy of St. Louis Shakespeare