Saturday, May 03, 2008

New York, Spring 2008 -- Day Fourteen, "The 39 Steps"


"The 39 Steps" is a stage adaptation of the Hitchcock film of the same name. At first glance, this doesn't seem like the best choice for adaptation. "Rear Window" would be a more logical choice, or "Strangers on a Train," or even "Psycho." Each of those have relatively few locations and limited characters. "The 39 Steps," on the other hand, has over a hundred characters and takes place in London, Scotland, in (and on) a train, farms, homes, a police station...

Fortunately, none of that really matters, as long as you're playing for laughs. Which is exactly what this stage adaptation (imported from London) does -- magnificently. After what seemed like one wounded family after another at the beginning of the trip, it was delightful to close the trip with this madcap (no word better suits this production) evening in which four actors play 100+ roles. In truth, three actors play 100+ roles, because Charles Edwards plays just the one part, Richard Hannay, the ordinary man caught up in extraordinary circumstances.

I'm trying to imagine someone not having a good time with this -- and having a hard go at it. It comes at you with such sincere, wacky brilliance, clowning with such imagination and intensity that I truly can't imagine anyone being able to resist it. It's two hours of physical comedy, pantomime (it's OK, it's the good kind) and absurdity that are focused on finding as many ways as possible to make you laugh.

Part of the fun of "The 39 Steps" is watching how one low-budget theatrical technique after another comes into play. It's a wonderful example of the power of theatrical imagination, as the producers find ways of telling a complex story using simple tools.

A bigger part of the fun is watching the amazing cast perform this incredibly physical comedy. The way they portray passengers chatting in a train compartment (all four of them rocking in loose unison) and a chase scene on top of the train (by flapping their coattails to simulate the rush of air past them) -- or a hundred other bits of business are little moments of genius. Not earth-shattering genius, nothing that will change the world, just new ways of making us laugh and think.

I suppose if I try hard enough, I could imagine some grump thinking the references to other Hitchcock movies are too obvious, and that the moment someone mimes being behind glass the jig is up, or that the whole enterprise is entirely too silly. But I don't like to imagine people like that.

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