Entertainment

'The 39 Steps' is one unbroken leap into lunacy

Am I allowed to say that John Buchan's 1915 novel "The Thirty-Nine Steps," admittedly one of the cornerstones of espionage literature, is a stiff and clunky tale?

Am I permitted to add that Alfred Hitchcock made many a masterpiece, but that his 1935 film version isn't one?

Both sources are ripe for good-natured tweaking, and that's what the 2008 play by Patrick Barlow does. He has turned the farcical plot about stolen aircraft plans into literal farce, with doors slamming and performers donning characters as quickly as they can change hats and accents.

There's no menace any more, just madness. Inconstant emotions have been replaced by constant motion. Yet the show, which strikes a zany note from end to end, remains cotton-candy fun.

Unflappable Dave Blamy plays Richard Hannay, the bored Londoner who lands in an improbable world of German spies, music-hall turns and femmes likely to be fatale.

Maret Decker Seitz plays the three ladies in the case: a fräulein who'd be at home in "Young Frankenstein," a Scottish wife with a wayward eye, and a twit of a Brit who hinders Hannay as much she helps. All other roles, from a malformed mastermind to a pair of imbecile hotelkeepers, are handled by actors billed as Clown 1 and Clown 2 (Rory Dunn and Greg McGrath, skilled at broad comedy).

The one drawback is that the play has no way to build. Barlow and director Chip Decker deliver crazy humor from the beginning in a steady rhythm, but the similar gags wear a bit on third and fourth repetition, however adroitly performed. The show might have maintained momentum more easily without the intermission, which returns us to the world of September heat and lobby gossip and breaks the mood.

Yet the cleverness of the production is never in doubt, from the thugs who bring their own streetlight for illumination to a pair of shadow planes that chase a stick-figure Hannay through the Scottish Highlands. (This is one of many amusing references to Hitchcock's movies, and Hitch's portly silhouette makes a cameo appearance.)

The advantage to this madcap behavior is that any lapses in consistency can be taken as intentional gags. We know that Hannay's phone, which rings after he picks it up, is an intended bit of stage foolery. So when actors miss a mark, or accents float in and out of authenticity, those might also be intentional bloopers. (I did wish the cast would agree on how to pronounce Hannay's last name.)

The two clowns roar enjoyably, often channeling Monty Python: One irritable farmer could be Python's Mr. Gumby, down to the knotted handkerchief on his thick head.

Seitz, who's more like Madeline Kahn than the movie's Madeleine Carroll, is a raucous joy. But Blamy, whose job is mainly to react to everyone, deserves a special hand for remaining the calm eye of this comic hurricane.

  Comments