The Alley Theatre's senior dramaturg and director of new play development Mark Bly spoke with Hair Balls about the new production of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps opening today. We asked him about the story's various incarnations, themes and how Hitchcock managed to so successfully mix danger with comedy.
Hair Balls: The story of The 39 Steps has a long history.
Mark Bly: It does. The center of this play is very much an amalgam of 300, 400 years of comedy. It has it's roots in commedia dell'arte, then the British music hall, American vaudeville, to the [Hitchcock] film and then the stage adaptation that was recently ... performed on Broadway.
HB: And each version is slightly different in style and approach, isn't it?
MB: Each of those adaptations reflects something of our society and our own media, but it's all up there on stage. It's all very connected.
HB: There are several variations, some of which are dramatic, and then Hitchcock's which is a comedy. What's the basic storyline?
MB: The play starts off with one character, Richard Hannay, the quintessential Hitchcock hero who finds himself suddenly in a Kafkaesque way accused of a crime. He shows up at a music hall, witnesses [a show by] Mr. Memory. Then suddenly a whole series of events get put in motion, a woman goes to [Hennay's] flat and is killed. Bang, he's on the run and has to prove his innocence. He thinks is just a simple case of murder. Along the way he discovers that the "39 steps" represent a spy group. Ultimately, he figures out it has something to do with the Nazis. So what he thought was simple murder, has drawn him into international espionage, treason, drawn into the beginning of WWII. After five days of roaming the countryside, he's back in that same music hall and discovers the answer to the mystery, which was right there all the time.
HB: All of that sounds very serious, but this is in fact a very funny play.
MB: Yes, in the midst of all these very serious things, there's lots of comedy. And it's done in what I call fractured frenzy performative style. In the beginning, he comes out of the music hall and a strange woman comes up to him out of nowhere and says that she wants to go home with him. He tells her, "Well, it's your funeral." And as it turns out, it is her funeral.
It moves very fast and mirrors our own media, which is so fracture and frenzied, you almost can't keep up with it. What started off as something relatively calm turns into frenetic quick change. There's Hannay, and three other [actors] who play over 100-and-some roles, that are constantly changing clothes, changing wigs, changing mustaches.
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Instead of taking the time to go off-stage to change clothes, they are literally standing on stage, then turning their profile and pushing their hat down a certain way, and that's the change of character. It's almost, "Wink, wink, here we are. We don't have time [to go offstage to change], we are improvising for our life onstage as actors."
HB: You mention improvising. As a matter of fact, Hitchcock did a little improvising of his own while he was writing the script, didn't he?
MB: At one point when Hitchcock and his co-writer were working on the play, the other writer asked Hitchcock, "Wait, a minute, what exactly are the 39 steps?" And Hitchcock is supposed to have said, "Oh, don't worry, we'll figure that out later." That wasn't what he was interested in, he was interested in the notion that you wake up one morning and things are fine and suddenly you're guilty, and you have to prove yourself otherwise. [You] not only have to prove [your] innocence but [you] have to prove [your] worth.
Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps opens March 10 and plays 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Sundays. Through March 28. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. For information, call 713-220-5700 or visit www.alleytheatre.org. $21 to $80.