It’s loosely based on a Hitchcock thriller, but the hilarious The 39 Steps is nothing less than a valentine to theater; indeed, this zippy quick-change comedy manages to turn everything — film, politics, war — into a hellzapoppin’ celebration of all things thespian.
Like the film, the plot follows the travails of a world-weary Everyman, Richard Hanney, who is suddenly thrust into a maelstrom of international espionage and intrigue; unlike the film, however, all parts are played by just four actors, who nimbly change garb and gender from scene to scene (and even, amusingly, from moment to moment). It’s hard to overemphasize the sheer imagination and energy of Maria Aitkin’s (Tony-nominated) direction: From the first shot, it’s off like a shot, as actors Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson morph into every imaginable plot contrivance, from meddling Scottish constables and high-kicking bagpipers to more literally lowly obstacles — like lochs. (And here you thought imitating a tree in an elementary-school play was challenging: just try playing a bog.) Ted Deasy nails the part of the dapper Hitchcock hero — vain, charming, and handy with his fisticuffs — while Claire Brownell neatly embodies the oh-so-Hitchcockian roles of femme fatale and femme amoreuse.
I first caught The 39 Steps at the cozy Criterion Theater in London, and remember being surprised at its later transfer to Broadway; in many respects, it’s as unlikely a Broadway hit as one can envision. In an era in which “mega-musicals” continue to rule the Great White Way — the upcoming Spider Man the Musical is estimated at $40 million (!) — The 39 Steps absolutely revels in its frugality. Why build a lumbering, expensive locomotive when you can imitate a train? It’s theatrical, cost-effective, and funny as hell, putting to shame such costly set-pieces as Phantom’s chandelier or Miss Saigon’s helicopter. Likewise, a frantic footrace — the sine qua non of any good thriller — is here transformed into a satirical, Balinese puppet version of Hitchcock’s film: a treatment so richly deserved and yet so simply produced. (This is how theater should be: rich in ideas, not budget.)
Movie mavens will appreciate the numerous in-jokes — in Patrick Barlow’s adaptation, the titles of Hitchcock films fly fast and furious — and Mic Pool’s sound design is nearly a character unto itself, effortlessly evoking the melodramatic tropes of ’30s cinema. Peter McKintoch’s set and costumes manage to fill even the cavernous Majestic with their inventive flights of fancy.
I’ve been hard on Broadway Across America in the past — too many repeats of road-weary musicals. But when they get it right, we must applaud. Whether you need 39 steps or 39,000 steps to get to the Majestic: Go. This is the best thing I’ve seen in San Antonio in months. — Thomas Jenkins