The 39 Steps: Hitchcock as Vaudeville

A grand goof
A grand goof
Photo courtesy of Firewing Pictures

The set-up:
Patrick Barlow's award-winning The 39 Steps is a grand goof. A knock-off of the immortal filmmaker's first international hit (1935), itself a suspenseful and adept adaptation by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay from John Buchan's Edwardian spy novel, this Catskill version is pure farce. Four actors play all the parts, jumping into and out of character with a change of hat, overcoat, or frumpy wig, as the international intrigue breathlessly rushes forward. The classic film is there in plot and verbatim dialogue, but Hichcock's patented irony and subversive sexy wit is liberally spritzed with lowdown panto and the wonder of theater make-believe. The comedy is as broad as the Scottish moors, over which our two squabbling protagonists scramble to avoid the bad guys chasing them. The comedy is laugh-out-loud funny – or should be.

The execution:
Thanks to the accomplished cast, Queensbury Theatre presents Barlow's Hitchcockian take-down with plenty of daffy smiles and inspired lunacy, but the overall impression is subdued and unimaginative. Farce shouldn't be cute; it should be door-slamming, pell mell, pie-in-the-face, seltzer down the pants.

There's so much material to work from to make Barlow sing – the entire Hitchcock oeuvre – that by not using even standard nods to the master of suspense, we're left unfulfilled for what might have been. Usually this play's been turned into a Hitchcock feast of visual innuendo and silly puns – an insider's homage. I remember one production where Norman Bates's creepy Victorian gothic house made a comic appearance, as did Nessie swimming merrily across Loch Ness, and that menacing crop duster from North By Northwest.

Queensbury doesn't try very hard to evoke any of the master's iconic cinematic images. There's a funny sound reference to Bernard Herrmann's slashing shower scene score from Psycho, and when our intrepid hero is running through the moors there's a miniature plane that flies through, but that effect is muffed by an errant light cue, bad timing, and garbled voice-overs. Director Geroge Brock seems to have taken the script as gospel and never noticed the riches it could contain.

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The timing's particularly off throughout, with scene changes that take forever, keeping us impatient and letting the comedy go slack. Witty as it all is, this yo-yo tempo stops the comedy dead. There shouldn't be an inordinate pause after hero Hannay jumps from the moving train before we see him hanging off a trestle bridge (soon to be joined by the two policemen who join him – wonderfully daffy). We have to wait until the luggage trunks, which have served as railroad seats and the top of the moving train cars, have been moved offstage (by the actors themselves, which slows everything down) and the trestle set moved on and clamped into place. Meanwhile, time ticks away, and, no surprise, so does the comic visual effect. The play's loopy humor is fairly well squandered.

What isn't squandered, though, are the actors. A delightful quartet, they catch the antic spirit and run with it for all its worth.

To the role of “everyman” Hannay, portrayed on film with memorable panache by Robert Donat, Ralph Biancalana brings his own special matinee idol stage presence. Intrepid and befuddled by the machinations he's unwittingly involved in, Biancalana is a peerless physical comedian. See how he juggles with the recalcitrant window shade or that humongous map of Scotland, as large as he is. See him dash through window frames and leap from train car to train car. Laugh as he struggles to fit into a comfortable sleeping position in his wing chair, winding up upside down. Throughout, it's a delight to watch him. He even sounds like refined Donat, all plummy tones. To top it off, in his tweed three-piece suit with pipe clamped in his mouth with jaunty attitude, he's the picture perfect Brit: content, a trifle smug, and, oh, so very silly.

Samantha Walker has a plum assignment as a trio of assorted female types. There's slinky German spy Annabella, with her Dietrich lisp. In red sequined gown she's the ultimate femme fatale. (The costumes by Deborah Blake and Elaine Steinbach add punch throughout.) “You are inwolwed,” she whispers conspiratorially to Hannay. “What?” he asks, trying to understand her. Later, she will slink across the stage, as if scratching an itch she can't reach behind her back. No wonder, there's a knife sticking there. She collapses in a heap on Hannay's lap. Watching him wriggle out from under her is a little comic masterpiece. Next, Walker is young unhappy farm wife Margaret, smitten with this handsome urbane stranger who stays the night. Like some wayward Heidi, her pigtails stick out sideways. Then, she's Pamela, the woman on the train Hannay impulsively kisses to ward off the police looking for him. Proper and prim, she doesn't for an instant believe his crazy tale of murder and spies, and promptly alerts the police. In one of Hitchcock's most assured reversals, she's handcuffed to Hannay during his chase across Scotland. In the film, the racy frisson is played like Noel Coward. Here, it should be more fun than it appears, but Brock's slow poke pacing weighs down the naughty lightness.

All other characters are played by Clown 1 and Clown 2. To devour the scenery with lip-smacking zest, Queensbury gives us two zanies, Brandon Hobratschk and Cris Skelton. Whether bagpipe playing husbands in kilts, busybody landladies (the one from Murder, Hitchcock's first sound film, who elicits that famous film scream which cuts to a train whistle, nicely referenced here), effete German masterminds, newsboys, and Keystone Cop-like bobbies, these two daft performers bring welcome laughs.

The verdict:
Queensbury's The 39 Steps isn't all it should be, in need of much more daffiness and speed, but the players are infectious and ready for anything. We may miss the touch of Monty Python, but the pleasant production, even with its disappointments, still beguiles. For that, we thank Hitchcock.

The 39 Steps. Through January 24. Queensbury Theatre, 12777 Queensbury Lane. For more information, call 713-467-4497 or visit $35.

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