Without a Hitch
The 39 Steps
Following Brüka Theatre’s opening night performance of The 39 Steps, my friend asked me, “How on Earth are you going to describe this show?”
I’m still not sure. I know I loved it, but explaining why will be tough, because it relies so heavily on understanding a lot of references to film icons—Monty Python, Keystone Cops, ’40s and ’50s film noir thrillers and, of course, everything Alfred Hitchcock ever did.
The play, adapted by Patrick Barlow, draws primarily from the Alfred Hitchcock film of the 1930s, which bears little resemblance to the John Buchan novel that inspired it. It tells the story of Richard Hannay (Lewis Zaumeyer), a man so bored with his life that he agrees to let a female German fugitive named Annabella Schmidt, whom he meets during a theater performance, come home with him. Schmidt (Amber Edsall) admits to being a spy with important information about “the 39 steps.”
Soon after her arrival at his home, she stumbles into his room, a knife planted in her back. This, naturally, means that Hannay is now a fugitive, presumed guilty of her murder.
It all sounds very serious and gripping, but truly, it’s not. Every scene, from the ridiculous haddock dinner Hannay serves—a scene that, in Hitch’s version, struck me as preposterous—to the careful arrangement she makes on Hannay’s lap before dying, and nearly every scene thereafter, is rife with satire.
It’s pulled off primarily by Chad Sweet and Michael Polanski, playing “Clown One” and “Clown Two,” who portray what seem like more than a dozen characters, from the train conductor to a paper boy, train passengers, spies chasing Hannay, policemen, a Scottish sheep farmer and his wife, a party-throwing German and his wife and a vaudeville/carnival show called “Mr. Memory.”
Send-ups of iconic moments from Hitchcock films are scattered throughout, and in fact the plot is nothing more than a frame around which to build a comedic self-awareness that had me literally crying with laughter. For instance, early in Hannay’s fugitive flight, he hops a train. When it arrives at the next station, the clowns, through a series of rapid-fire hat-changes, become a paper boy (Sweet) bearing news of the Hannay’s disappearance and a policeman (Polanski). They are so caught up in trading off hats and shouting the same lines over and over that finally an exasperated Hannay exclaims, “Can we get on with it?!”
Interspersed with such moments are shots of a rear window, a biplane attack, courtesy of puppets by Bernie Beauchamp, much funnier than Cary Grant’s in North by Northwest, a psychedelic Vertigo-swirl of red and more.
Zaumeyer not only plays the straightest character, but he’s also the only actor playing one role. Edsall also plays Margaret, the Scottish farmer’s wife, and Pamela, an unwilling fugitive who meets Hannay on a train, in addition to her slain Annabella. Chaos reigns during much of the play, with characters throwing on costumes feverishly and tossing props around. The 90-minute show flies.
And because nothing’s funnier than men in drag, as Monty Python proved time and again, Chad Sweet’s party hostess in drag is genius, with her hilarious, protracted welcome of Hannay involving a ridiculous number of doors that must be walked through—it seems to combine Monty Python with Notorious and even Bette Davis’ All About Eve. Describing it doesn’t do it justice.
Opening night saw a few flubbed lines and awkward exchanges, though those did little to detract from the fun. About mid-way through the play, shortly after intermission, things get so unbelievable and frenzied that I was unable to follow the story, and wasn’t all that worried about it. I just enjoyed the ride.