The set-up: A.D. Players produces one of its freshest, funniest productions in memory with Patrick Barlow's adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. This 2008 Tony-winner and Drama Desk award recipient for "unique theatrical experience" is just plain goofy - and that goofiness is its utter, unique charm.
The execution: One of Hitchcock's best comedy/thrillers and his first truly international hit, the 1935 movie, loosely adapted by screenwriter Charles Bennett from the 1915 John Buchan novel, starred English matinee idol Robert Donat and radiantly blond Madeleine Carroll as dueling, unwitting partners in crime. Handcuffed together, the pair scramble over the Scottish moors looking for the criminal mastermind, eluding police, and dodging suspicious highlanders. Patrick Barlow reimagines the comedy/thriller as pure farce. A cast of four plays all the parts. Hitchcock's movie is there in plot, scenes, verbatim dialogue, but Barlow has added a great dollop of English panto and a generous seltzer spritz of Monty Python.
We love the quick, blink-of-an-eye character changes that occur when a hat is doffed and another quickly put on, and the newspaper boy becomes a policeman and -- hat change -- back again to newsboy. Or when those boxes that represent the interior seats on a train instantly whoosh into the exterior of the train with our hero stranded outside over a looming gorge. Our hero flaps his own coattails in the wind. It's laugh-out-loud funny, no doubt about it. The play's a quirky homage to Hitchcock; but at its heart it's really an ode to theater.
Protagonist Richard Hannay (a delightfully suave Kevin Dean 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 the woman literally tied to him, A.D. newcomer Alexis German, 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 iconic and erotically charged scenes, the couple 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.
The film brims with cinematic sparkle and rustic characters out of Dickens, and all the heady sequences are reproduced on stage with comic inventiveness. But it's not just this movie that gets skewered, many of Hitchcock's iconic films are referenced in the design (those crop dusters that menace Cary Grant in North by Northwest, Norman Bates' creepy Victorian house in Psycho) or mentioned somewhere as groan-inducing puns. The visual surprise are those super funny black-and-white background projections that pop up to fill in plot points or just be silly filler. No one is listed in the program as the film magician, but my hat's off to whomever it is. The clever rear projection is a beguiling homage to Hitch and the movies.
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My only caveats: (1) A lack of split-second timing in scene changes; no lag time, please. (2) Why isn't Ms. German a blond? From his second film on, every one of his leading ladies was blond. A brunette, even one as lovely as German, just won't do for this quintessential parody. She must be a blond.
Dean, a master of physical comedy, is stiff upper lip perfect as sputtering innocent Hannay; and German is equally game for all the ensuing wackiness, especially slinky as a Dietrich-lisping spy in the first scene who sets the plot in corkscrew motion. A.D. Players veterans Craig Griffin and Jeff McMorrough (both high-class Dickensian actors themselves) steal every scene they're in and have a hell of a fine time chewing the scenery as incompetent Bobbies, a sweet innkeeper and his romantic wife; a pinched old farmer; a German spy; etc., etc.
The verdict: If you like your comedy sublimely broad and laugh-out-loud, A.D. Players' masterful vaudeville is impossible to resist.
The 39 Steps continues through October 5. A.D. Players, 2710 W. Alabama. Purchase tickets online at adplayers.org or call 713-526-2721. $42.