The three words a critic least likes to utter – “I was wrong” – came out of my reluctant mouth Wednesday night after “The 39 Steps” opened at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte.
I saw the play almost a decade ago and thought, “Meh. Why isn’t this more like John Buchan’s espionage novel, or at least like Alfred Hitchcock’s fairly respectful film version? It’s like watching Monty Python or the Goon Show deconstruct a spy story. What’s the point?”
But that is the point. This isn’t meant to be a tense narrative, just madcap cleverness for its own sake. Even if you’re a fan of the Richard Hannay novels Buchan wrote over 21 years, beginning with “Steps” in 1915 – and I own all five – the author can stand an elbow in the ribs every so often. In fact, every 60 seconds, as this silly spectacle at Hadley Theater proves.
Hannay (Jeremy DeCarlos) remains the nominal hero of the tale, which still follows his attempts to prevent a criminal from taking a military secret out of Britain just prior to World War II. A German double agent (Lisa Schacher) gets knifed in his apartment after asking him to help foil the plan. When he runs from the police, he ends up handcuffed to a woman he met on a train (Schacher again). Meanwhile, two guys listed in the program as “Clowns” (Rob Addison and Chip Decker) play dozens of other characters of all ages and both genders.
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Patrick Barlow’s 2005 script adapts a play written 10 years earlier by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. It got nominated for a 2008 Best Play Tony after coming over from England, probably because voters were dazzled by the speed of the show: Costumes, wigs and props fly on and off bodies and the stage. (It lost to the heavyweight “August: Osage County.”)
Director Ann Marie Costa, who was assisted by Matt Hunter, gives the goofiness full rein. Decker and Hallie Gray respectively designed the crucial sound and lighting effects, and Vikki Thomas and Philip Wessler do heroic work making those effects succeed – or fail intentionally – at precise moments. In my favorite scene, a window descends with excruciating slowness as Hannay fidgets to escape; after he steps through, it rises just in time to catch the cop climbing after him in the groin.
DeCarlos, an ATC regular, shows physical comedy skills he seldom gets to display; Schacher matches him tumble for tumble and grimace for grimace. The Clowns, adopting and sometimes dropping countless accents – maybe that’s intentional, too – fully embrace the low humor. The Marlene Dietrich-style agent in Hannay’s apartment warns him, “Zese men vill shtick at nothing.” Actually, zese men vill throw shtick at everything, and that’s a pretty good idea.
‘The 39 Steps’
WHEN: Through June 23 at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 2:30 p.m. Sunday.
WHERE: Hadley Theatre at Queens University, 2132 Radcliffe Avenue.
RUNNING TIME: 135 minutes, including one intermission.
DETAILS: 704-342-2251 or atcharlotte.org.