THE 39 STEPS at George Street: Delightfully Irreverent Sendup

by Patrick Maley

Hitchcock had a sense of humor, right?

Howard McGillin, Mark Price and Michael Thomas Holmes. (Photo credit: T. Charles Erickson)

One hopes so, anyway, lest the joys of THE 39 STEPS’s delightfully irreverent comic sendup of his work would be lost on the master himself. Goofy, hammy, and at all times utterly self-conscious, THE 39 STEPS at The George Street Playhouse is an unabashed treat for the soul of comic theater. Part Hitchcock, part Monty Python, part choreographical mastery, THE 39 STEPS had an improbable two-year run on Broadway, all-but unheard of longevity for a straight play. Its success, though, is not surprising, as it makes for a night of pure fun.
Based on the 1935 Hitchcock film of the same name (itself based on a 1915 novel of the same name), THE 39 STEPS follows the adventures of a 1930’s Englishman named Richard Hannay, newly returned to London from a stint in the Empire’s Canadian colonies, and bored out of his mind. His search for entertainment (or at least distraction) leads him unwittingly into the mire of international espionage, intrigue, and murder. Wrongly accused of killing a dark and sexy secret agent, Hannay must flee the clutches of authorities, evil villains, and henchmen alike in order to recover the top-secret information that motivated the actual murder. Along the way, we get all the elements we would expect from a classic spy story: high adventure, narrow escapes, sexual tension, double crosses, and the sort of clearly defined good guys and bad guys that never force us to think too much.

Stacie Morgain Lewis and Howard McGillin in a scene from George Street Playhouse's productionn of THE 39 STEPS. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

As that description might reveal, the plot here is simply a vehicle for the show’s hijinks, of which there are plenty. Hannay is played with masterful British cheekiness by Broadway veteran Howard McGillin—who starred in PHANTOM OF THE OPERA’s title role in over 2,500 performances—but his three cast mates bounce nimbly between many different roles. The only woman in the ensemble, Stacie Morgain Lewis, plays three different characters over the course of the play while Mark Price and Michael Thomas Holmes, credited only as Clown One and Clown Two, move between a staggering amount of roles, paying no regard to the gender, age, or, humanity of the characters (or objects). The effect is at times dizzying, but the characters portrayed by Mr. Price and Mr. Thomas Holmes are such comically drawn caricatures that confusion is never really an option. Familiar stereotypes are the hallmark of all accents, and costumes so prototypical of a character type that they could be illuminated name tags adorn actors at all points. Unneeded nuance is left at the stage door in favor of comically overdrawn characters and sight gags (to say nothing of the shadow puppets, other than: there are shadow puppets. And they’re great).

The jokes come at rapid pace, and are funny in their overtly vaudevillian, Fozzie Bear sort of way, but the real joy of THE 39 STEPS is its staging. Although only two scenes are set in a theater, the resemblance of George Street’s set (by Yoshi Tanokura) to a classic early-twentieth century proscenium stage, with ornate molding, footlights, and box seats, is entirely fitting of the show’s emphasis on theatricality. When the plot calls for a door, a framed door on wheels is shoved out from backstage; when a character must open a window, the performer pantomimes the action and adds a “swish” sound with his or her mouth to mark the window’s slide; when the characters are sitting in a train car, marked only by several chests in close proximity, they add a constant bob and shake to their bodies to invoke the train’s movement. The show’s best gag is its treatment of wind: when Hannay’s flight from the authorities takes him to the top of a train (the same chests which we the train’s seats are now the tops of its cars), Mr. McGillin shakes the tails of his overcoat as if they are being rustled by the wind. The technique returns to the show later, as Ms. Morgain Lewis rustles her own dress and pigtails to wind gushing through a door. This is just the sort of hammed-up gag so distinctive of the fun of THE 39 STEPS: we are always aware that the players are at play, and we watch with delight as they tumble from role to role to keep the plates of the story spinning.

Howard McGillin and Stacie Morgain Lewis star in THE 39 STEPS, running at George Street Playhouse through May 20. (Photo by T. Charles Erickson)

While a few scenes are less successful than others, THE 39 STEPS remains a lighthearted pleasure (regardless of the level of one’s familiarity with Hitchcock’s work). Director Mark Shanahan and Movement Director Jen Waldman have combined forces to stage a play tantamount to a comic ballet. It is a joy to watch the show’s clowns move in and out of character, accent, and costume before our eyes in what must be an utterly exhausting evening for the performers. The effort certainly pays off, though, as George Street’s THE 39 STEPS delivers just the right sort of daffy hijinks to lovingly lampoon the master of intrigue and suspense.

Adapted by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Mark Shanahan
April 24 – May 20, 2012
George Street Playhouse
9 Livingston Avenue
New Brunswick, NJ, 08901

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