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39 Steps Off-Broadway

Well, it’s about time that I caught up with this zany spoof/homage. It’s been bouncing around for a decade between London and New York City, on Broadway and Off-Broadway while here in the States, after winning the Olivier Award for Best Comedy, at the beginning of its 9-year West End run. It’s based on one of Alfred Hitchcock’s finest British films, released in 1935, a few years before he permanently landed in Hollywood. But while that humdinger of a film, was played straight with a renowned cast including Robert Donat, Madeleine Carroll and Peggy Ashcroft, this stage version utilizes a cast of just four to embody over 100 speaking roles. It’s mostly a gas, often quite loopy, and always a heckuva good time.

The plot of the play faithfully follows that of the 1935 motion picture. Richard Hannay (the Robert Donat-like, Robert Petkoff, at this Union Square Theatre production) is swept into an espionage story involving murder, a map of the Scottish Highlands, and the compelling mystery of the “39 Steps”. What is it, and what does it mean? The audience will find out by show’s end, but not until a breakneck 100-minute romp, involving moving train escapes, car chases, walks through the misty moors, and more. It’s all bookended by the appearance of a certain, Mr. Memory, just like in the movie. Plus there are loving nods to Hitchcock’s “Strangers on a Train”, “Psycho”, “Vertigo”, and “North by Northwest”. I’ll be damned if they also didn’t work in a hilarious “Alfred Hitchcock” cameo during the play. And the prop usage and set design used to represent the various “action” in the show…is priceless. You’ll love it.

“39 Steps” is pretty terrific family fun, so you should certainly visit this Off-Broadway romp before it finally goes dark next month. While Mr. Petkoff is quite good, performing solely in the role of Richard Hannay, Brittany Vicars (the lone female of the quartet), embodies the trio of femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, ingenue Pamela, and Margaret, the crofter’s wife. Ms. Vicars is dynamic and adorable in what is her New York stage debut. She shows great range, and accomplished aplomb–I guarantee we’ll be hearing much more from this young, new talent. However, special kudos must be reserved for the roles of Clown #1 and Clown #2, by the actors Billy Carter and Cameron Pow, respectively. These two versatile men carry the bulk of the over 100 roles touched on during the plot of the “39 Steps”. Changing hats, swapping genders, morphing into different characters in the blink of an eye–often using the device of a 180 degree turn of the body, or the donning of a long skirt and curly wig. Carter and Pow are perpetual motion machines–and they are absolutely marvelous. What they accomplish is dizzying. It’s also darn good.

This loving adaptation by Patrick Barlow, is a visual and aural delight, and the direction of Maria Aitken is on-target in its attempt to keep all of the stage histrionics simple in their complexities. I’m certain it was not an easy task. The Union Stage Theatre is a perfect and intimate space for this kind of show, and the relatively sparse crowd I attended with, seemed sucked right into the madcap mayhem. One thing. Though it’s far from fatal, I couldn’t help but feel the timing was slightly off at the performance I was at. It’s got to be a difficult chore to keep this kind of routine completely fresh, robust and zippy eight shows a week. I get that. And I bet on certain nights, almost every zinger hits the bullseye. This matinée, however, sported a few duds. But I’m still recommending this kooky staged Hitch homage. You’ll not only leave with a smile on your face, but the ushers will hand you a complimentary red clown nose upon your arrival. It’s an inspired little perk. “Am I right, sir!” Quite right.

This show rates a solid 7

 

 

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