The 39 Stepsby Patrick Barlow, from the novel by John Buchan and the film by Alfred Hitchcock, screenplay by Charles Bennet and Alma Reville. Directed by Phil Rice.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
Matt Malloy, Skylar Saltz, Steve Triebes and Dominick Varney; photo provided
"Baubles of all worldly wickedness."
Richard Hannay, a Canadian living in London, becomes the victim of a manipulative, raven-haired woman who is murdered in his flat within hours of their meeting. Fleeing for his life and also pursuing the international spy whom she was following, Hannay finds himself in Scotland alone and unsupported and ultimately handcuffed to a vindictive blonde woman who would rather see him dead than see his story through to its rightful conclusion. Along the way Hannay is pursued and threatened by genteel professors, policemen, sheriffs, political savants, undergarment salesmen, milkmen, and a renegade Scots farmer. He is aided by women, drunks, vaudevillians, and a handful of assorted others. In this play, based on the film based on the novel, Hannay is up against it on all sides. And at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, New York Richard Hannay has some help from his cast members who play the hordes of London, Scotland and various Edinburgh train stations.
There are 33 scenes which follow the film script carefully (although the first and last are new for the play). Special effects which have long been a personal joy are replicated in this play with amazing clarity and definition, particularly the reaction of a charwoman upon discovering the dead woman in Hannay’s flat. I love it in the film and I adore it in this production.
Two men play almost every character in the story, change the sets, change their own costumes and wigs. Referred to as Clown 1 and Clown 2 they are aptly named for their actual responsibility seems to be to harness laughter. Yes, they manage to play the roles assigned to them, but their take on those roles is often over-the-top and exaggerated just to the point where a sombre situation can become a laughable one without destroying the credibility of the character or the viability of the tale.
Both of the actors who undertake these parts are marvelous at maintaining the perfect balance in this production. Dominick Varney, tall, Dickensian-skinny with a face that seems to melt into characters, is one of the finest farceurs in his still young generation. He seems to be funny even when he’s moving a set piece from one side of the stage to the other and, late in the show, is hilarious moving four pieces off left.
Matt Malloy, his permanent opposite physically, has facial expressions and voices and accents and all of the other floppy physical aspects of comedy at his disposal. Whether playing the leering hotelier Mr. McGarrigle or the pompous county Sheriff, the ancient political speaker or the evil Professor he possesses the character and lets the character possess him also. He moves seamlessly from one to another in the penultimate scene and his clarity in each is spotless.
Skylar Saltz takes on the three women in Hannay’s life with equal grace and agility. She gives Annabella Schmidt, the middle-European spy, a glamor and sultriness that turns her into a 1930s German film star who could out vamp screen star Theda Bara. As the humble, kerchiefed farm wife, Margaret Crofter, who aids Hannay in his escape and inadvertently saves his life, she was soupishly tender and sloppily affectionate, Scottish to the enth degree and feminine one step further up the ladder.
It is, however, as Pamela, the role Madeleine Carroll played in the Hitchcock film, where Saltz shines, providing just enough bitchiness to make her turn-around into an affectionate supporter of the Hannay history seem totally believable. She doesn’t have the Carroll sheen or the sleek smile or the blonde sway that distinguished the film star, but she does have enough of all the elements to pull off a difficult part, one that is hardly sympathetic and yet is surprisingly sweet when needed.
Steve Triebes makes a handsomely dashing leading man for this play. If Hannay is a bit boring, and a bit of a bore at that, it is not the actor who makes him so, it is the role itself. Robert Donat made a name for himself in this role back in 1935. I doubt that Mr. Triebes will do the same with the part, but he is sturdy, hardy and healthy in the part and quite believable, a quality the show needs if it is to succeed. He gives it gravitas when all around him is chaos and hilarity. He is the Bud Abbott to three Lou Costellos in three dozen roles.
The film, in handsome and moody black and white, is given a full color showing on stage in the ideal clothing designed by Alyssa Coutourier. Abe Phelps simple but crowded set works to the advantage of the piece and even adds a bit of hilarity of its own in the second act. Sound Designer Renée E. Butler provides some of the most perfect effects I’ve heard and uses music in all the right places, except at the very last film-cribbed scene. Allen E. Phelps is kept very busy with lighting effects that include everything from 1930s stage lights to the moodiness of the Scottish moors.
Phil Rice has pulled together all of these talents and overseen a fine production, one that is guaranteed to bring a tear to your eye as you try to stop laughing. Hitchock used humor in the film and Rice emulates the movieman’s choices often, but he takes things further and uses both his clowns and his tragedians to excellent effect.
You won’t be given Godfrey Tearle’s subtle evil or Helen Haye’s curious indifference, nor Peggy Ashcroft’s simplicity and charm nor Wylie Watson’s emphatic need for approval in this play, but the parodies of them are high, wide and handsome in the hands of this company. If you don’t come out of the theater humming Mr. Memory’s theme it won’t be because you haven’t had ample opportunity to learn it. But in this version of "The 39 Steps" if you do leave the building humming at all then the show has done its job well.
The 39 Steps plays at the Theater Barn in New Lebanon, NY, located at 654 Route 20, through July 8. For information and tickets call the box office at 518-794-8989.