The 39 Steps Goes Low Tech for Laughs

Elizabeth Bunch and Todd Waite in the Alley Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps.
Elizabeth Bunch and Todd Waite in the Alley Theatre’s production of The 39 Steps. Photo by Christopher Diaz
The setup:

Whaddya get if you mix Alfred Hitchcock's suspense with Monty Python's humor? No, this isn’t the setup for a joke about British film/TV masters and their respective genres. Rather, the mashup is a fitting description for this year’s Alley Theatre murder mystery Summer Chills feature, The 39 Steps.

Originally a sweeping 1935 black-and-white classic Alfred Hitchcock heroes-and-dames movie, The 39 Steps is today perhaps better known for Patrick Barlow’s 2006 adaptation, which turned the story into a farce, winning awards and delighting audiences in London, New York and beyond. Beyond in this case already including Houston and the Alley, which originally produced the show in 2010.

Some of that original production remains intact for this iteration — lead actors Todd Waite and Elizabeth Bunch and director Mark Shanahan are reprising their duties. Two visiting artists, Bruce Warren and Mark Price, round out the cast on a set originally designed for the pre-renovated Alley stage, now adapted for the space’s enhanced abilities.

The plot, of course, remains the same. Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old Canadian bachelor living in 1930s London, meets Annabella Schmidt, a mysterious woman on the run from foreign spies. He agrees to hide her in his apartment, but she is murdered in the middle of the night. Richard must then go on a wild chase to find the leader of the spy ring so he can clear himself of any connection to Annabella’s murder and stop the spies from smuggling important national secrets out of the country.

The execution:

The scenic design is the runaway star of this production, but not in the way it usually is at the Alley. Unlike the ornately sumptuous set of last year’s Summer Chiller, Spider’s Web, or the projection-heavy, multimedia extravaganza that was the TUTS presentation of the comical murder mystery A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, the 39 Steps set is about as low tech as you can get. Well, low tech for the Alley, anyway.

Framing the space is a large, tarnished bronze stage arch, supporting two private boxes on either side. The nearly bare stage is made up of a bleached wooden floor onto which are wheeled only a handful of items. Steamer trunks double as beds, desks, trains, cars and fireplaces, a leather club chair is sat on by almost everyone at one point, and a single door frame provides entry into and exit from all manner of situations and scenes. Scenic designer Hugh Landwehr throws in a few more odds and ends, but nowhere in sight are the big-ticket set items we’re accustomed to seeing at the largest theater in town.

This unplugging, if you will, of the Alley’s grandness is a breath of fresh air. Not only because it shows off the cleverness of the design team but because it forces director Mark Shanahan and his talented cast to rely almost solely on their physicality and comic timing to captivate our imagination and keep our attention.

Although far too old to be playing the 37-year-old Richard Hannay, Todd Waite lithely deadpans throughout this whirlwind of a story. Energetically, he takes his tweed-suited, proper chap of a character cross country on the run from the cops, in pursuit of the villain and wooing more than one woman along the way. As the murdered Annabella, a Scottish farm girl, Pamela, and Margaret, the woman Hannay comes to love, Elizabeth Bunch is also punching well below her age, but that doesn’t stop her from bringing a good amount of camp to the material.

However, it’s the supporting roles (more than 100 if one is keeping count) played by Mark Price and Bruce Warren in quick-change, quick-witted fashion that deservedly get the most laughs. A hat put on and taken off, a coat thrown over a uniform, Price and Warren continually impress with their ability to switch characters within a matter of seconds and with just a simple prop. A gorgeously timed train scene that has the pair playing dozens of characters, all confined to a rail car and later atop that same car in pursuit, is actorly simpatico in motion.

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some minor rough spots in the production. The accents are all over the place, with our Canadian hero sounding British, and the Scottish characters sounding vaguely Irish at best and just plain silly at worst. Odder still is the decision to make Annabella’s accent sound more speech impediment than foreign tongue, and for the master spy to sound vaguely Russian despite his seeming allegiance to Hitler’s Reich. No, mastering dialect isn’t the main concern of a farcical show such as this, and no, the odd cadences didn’t discourage the laughs, and in some cases even caused them. Still, they seemed sloppy in a show at this level.

More problematic were the too many times Shanahan had his leads running around like dogs chasing their tails in order to portray their “on the run” status. Whereas so much of Shanahan’s direction was beautifully controlled chaos, these moments, with Waite and Bunch scrambling in circles, aimlessly around the set, stopping to do cutesy dance moves for variation, felt like killing time in the laziest way possible.

The verdict:

But really, no one comes to The 39 Steps to nit-pick on minor issues such as these. This is a physical comedy for folks who like their theater to go down easy with a slightly unexpected but easily digestible plot turn here and there. Fans that want to escape the Houston summer heat, sit in a cool, dark space and laugh at inconsequential matters for two hours.

Even if this type of show isn’t normally your thing, given what’s going on in the world outside that cool, dark place, doesn’t two hours of respite sound like a tempting option right about now?

In an era of such upheaval, it’s theater’s job to provoke, address and push. But every once in a while, I’d argue that it’s also the job of theater to act like a sorbet, and for a brief moment cleanse our woe-stricken palates. To make us laugh at silly acting done well so we can go back out into the glare of reality, recharged and ready. Or at least somewhat rested.

I’m pretty sure neither Barlow nor the Alley nor even Hitchcock himself would mind if that’s what we take away from this “Good Eeev-en-ing” in the theater.

The 39 Steps has been extended through September 3 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For tickets, call 713-220-5700 or visit $26-$81.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder as an Alley Theatre production.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman