Never underestimate the august Alley Theatre. Houston's preeminent theater company is usually known for its classy renditions of classic dramas; it's the place to see a definitive Albee, a gangbuster O'Neill or a knockout Shakespeare. But if you want silly, the Alley can do silly with the best of them.
Take Patrick Barlow's Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, adapted from the director's 1935 film. This 2008 Tony winner and Drama Desk award recipient for Unique Theatrical Experience is goofy in the extreme. It's the classic Hitchcock 1935 suspense movie — one of his greatest thrillers, which starred Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll as dueling, unwitting partners in crime — reimagined as farce. A cast of four plays all the parts. Hitchcock's movie is there in plot, in scenes, in verbatim dialogue, but Barlow has added a great dollop of English panto and a gushing seltzer spritz of Benny Hill.
To the comedy's credit, Barlow also has added a wondrous layer of theatrical magic and make-believe that makes us appreciate the imagination we have to bring to any theater production. We love the quick, blink-of-an-eye character changes that occur when a hat is doffed and another quickly put on, turning the newspaper boy into a policeman and — hat change — back again to newsboy. We love when those boxes that represent the interior seats on a train instantly whoosh into the exterior of the train, with our hero running breathlessly over the top. And we love when the farmer's wife shakes her braids behind her as if they're caught in a windstorm when the cottage door is opened to the blasted heath. The play's a quirky homage to Hitchcock, but at heart it's really an ode to theater.
The 39 Steps is laugh-out-loud funny, no question about it. The two main characters, who instantly dislike each other, find themselves handcuffed together. Protagonist Richard (Todd Waite as an oh-so-tweedy Englishman) seeks to clear his name for a murder he didn't commit and at the same time solve an international espionage plot, while white-hot blond Pamela (Elizabeth Bunch) thinks him daft and attempts to warn the police at every opportunity. They race through Scotland, always one foot ahead of policemen who may in fact be bad guys. In one of the film's erotically charged scenes, they must spend the night cuffed together in the same bed at a rustic hotel, having signed in as honeymooning husband and wife to deflect suspicion. A wonderful, sexy wit is present throughout the story.
The film brims with cinematic sparkle, and all the heady sequences are reproduced onstage with brilliant comic inventiveness — the chase across the moors depicted as shadow puppets is magnificently loopy. But it's not just this movie that gets skewered — many of Hitchcock's iconic films are either referenced in the design (those crop dusters that menace Cary Grant in North by Northwest, Norman Bates's creepy Victorian house in Psycho) or mentioned somewhere as groan-inducing parody.
Waite, a boneless master of physical comedy, is stiff-upper-lip perfect as a sputtering innocent, and Bunch, sublimely over-the-top as a Dietrich-lisping spy, is equally game for all the wacky frivolity. To our constant merriment, John Tyson and Jeffrey Bean steal every scene they're in and have a hell of a fine time. If you like your comedy broad, the Alley's masterful rendition of this vaudeville — still playing off-Broadway — is mighty difficult to resist.
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