As the proud owner of an Alfred Hitchcock pop-up book and an admittedly rabid fan of the master of suspense, I approached seeing The 39 Steps — the stage version of his seminal 1935 film — with both excitement and trepidation. What could be better than watching four actors madly juggle multiple characters while bringing to life this classic Hitchcock film’s complex narrative of murder, espionage, and love using clever, yet deceptively simple theatrical tricks? Yet, what could be worse than seeing a great film reduced to broad comedy and bad puns? Happily, although the silliness and Hitchcockian allusions got stale by the end of the evening, The 39 Steps manages both to be great fun to watch and to offer an intriguing example of the increasingly interwoven relationship between theater and cinema.
Early in the play, Richard Hannay (Ted Deasy) bemoans his boring existence and declares that he will do something “meaningless” to pass the time: go to the theater. Once at the theater, everything changes. After he witnesses the haunting performance of Mr. Memory (a performer dedicated to memorizing and repeating thousands of facts) and encountering secret agent Annabella Schmidt (Claire Brownell), Richard is sucked into a world of murder and spies and finds himself on the lam, pursued across London and Scotland by police and secret agents. The theater as the setting for both the beginning and the climactic moment of the play and film begs the question: Why is so-called “meaningless” theater so crucial both to the narrative and to the film’s adaptation to the stage?
Notably, on opening night the biggest gasps and applause were reserved for the distinctly theatrical. The actors at times play two characters at once and provide all the elements of film (the wind, the movement of a car or train). The setting, sometimes nothing more than ladders, chairs, and an occasional window frame or doorway, highlights the fact that this film is being done on the stage. Add to this the rapid fire costume changes, an ingenious use of four actors to populate a narrative teeming with characters, and, perhaps most importantly, the sheer physicality of the staging, and the audience marvels at how the actors are going to pull off the feat of just getting through the performance.
Each of the performers (Ted Deasy, Eric Hissom, Scott Parkinson, and Claire Brownell) exhibits stunning timing, specificity, and range. Director Maria Aitken’s staging (often wonderfully verging on choreographic) requires them to create the characters and the setting for each scene using nothing more than the precision of their bodies. At times their bodies become the scenery itself. Man No. 1 and Man No. 2 shape themselves into various obstacles (rivers, mounds of dirt, shrubbery) in the way of the handcuffed Richard and Margaret as they flee across the Scottish countryside.
Yet, the attention to the visual language of the film, through lighting, costumes, a minimal but evocative use of space, and transitions that mimic the editing techniques used in the film, pushes the theatrical into cinematic territory. The vaudevillian quality of the actors’ movements combined with the fluidity of the transitions between scenes and the theatrical tricks nestled throughout makes the play a particularly important addition to the recent flood of films adapted to the stage.
Consider that the program for The 39 Steps advertises the upcoming touring show The 101 Dalmatians Musical (presented by Purina Dog Chow!), and that the last Broadway show to come to the Majestic Theatre was Julie Taymor’s adaptation of Disney’s The Lion King. The relationship between theater and cinema is on an intriguing road as of late — film has gone live, so to speak. Why should we care? In the age of the screen, you might argue, the theatre has been swallowed by film. Perhaps. However, since presence and liveness are the very things that film cannot reproduce, the desire to see The 39 Steps brought to life onstage suggests that theater still matters after all. I knew there was a reason Legally Blonde: The Musical exists.