Syracuse Stage and a cast of four mount a comic revision of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
Lunch on the lam: Sarah Nealis and Nick Sandys as the handcuffed couple in Syracuse Stage’s The 39 Steps.Look up, it’s a spoof. No, it’s a farce.
No, it’s a slapstick comedy. No, no, it’s a whatchamacallit. The 39 Steps is a fast-paced mixed-genre comedy that does not require you ever to have seen the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock black-and-white film that inspired it. Too much of the film’s narrative survives to make it a mere spoof. Festooned with in-jokes, it’s too informed and too smart for mere slapstick. And while playwright-adaptor Patrick Barlow’s Britishness suggests a nod to Monty Python, the whole thing feels more like an homage to the late American absurdist Charles Ludlam, best known in these parts for The Mystery of Irma Vep (Syracuse Stage, 1991). It’s tickling all your senses all the time.
From a distance The 39 Steps looks like another one of those labor-saving productions, like Travels With My Aunt (1998), where a handful of actors play all the parts without changing costumes. Linda Buchanan’s paradoxical set signals early on that more things are happening. We see an ornate old-fashioned proscenium arch with gilded boxes at the right and left, both of which get used. In between we see what appears to be a bare set with a charcoal-colored wall and an Exit sign over a door in the middle. This should be telling us that the producers spent quite a bit of money on The 39 Steps, and that we should expect some improv. Only as we look closer, we see that’s not the real Syracuse Stage bare set but a constructed one. The real bare set has no such door, and the sign on this one changes its wording from time to time.
Put another way, The 39 Steps has a bit in common with Michael Frayn’s Pirandellian farce, Noises Off. Some of the seemingad-libs are scripted, such as the phone that won’t stop ringing when it’s picked up. But many others are original with this production, which was also seen earlier this fall at the Cleveland Play House. So if some of your pretentious friends tell that they already saw The 39 Steps in London or New York City or even at Ithaca’s Hangar Theatre last summer, they are missing two of the most hilarious bits seen only here. It’s unethical to give them away, but the stronger of the two, arguably the comic high point of the entire production, involves a steal from the most famous scene in North By Northwest.
If you’ve never seen the Hitchcock movie or read the John Buchan novel (1915) on which it is putatively based, the story will still feel familiar. It’s a classic case of an innocent man (Hitchcock called him “the wrong man”) on the run for a crime he did not commit, finding comedy, romance and danger along the way. Cinema historians will tell you Buchan invented this theme, which is why the play was known as John Buchan’s 39 Steps in Britain. But most of the rest of us associate this plotting with Hitchcock and his many imitators. Hitchcock threw out most of the novel, with Buchan’s approval, including the actual 39 Steps, and replaced them with his own obsessions. As Hitchcock scholarship is pretty widespread these days, many audiences are in on what fascinated him. Things like bondage (notably handcuffs), being stranded with nothing to say in front of strange crowds, and, especially, the persistence of cool, inaccessible blondes.
Handsome, suave Richard Hannay (Nick Sandys) is watching a vaudeville show with a man doing memory tricks when a shot rings out. In the ensuing panic he finds himself hand-in-hand with a Mata Hari-sounding Annabella Schmidt (Sarah Nealis). She tells him she has uncovered a plot to steal British military secrets and that she is being pursued by assassins out to kill her. After some playfulness about where to sleep, which puts Hannay in another room, she is indeed done in. When he flees a cleaning lady discovers Annabella’s body and screams, cutting instantly to the whistle of the Scotland-bound train, one of Hitchcock’s most famous inventions. Hannay is aboard the train.
After jumping from a high bridge, Hannay leads a merry chase across the Scottish Highlands, stopping with peasants speaking incomprehensible dialects, flirting with beautiful women of low and high station (all played by Nealis), while pursuing the bad guys and being chased by lawmen, some of them bogus. Eventually he makes it to the London Palladium where the performing Mr. Memory is at it again.
Sandys’ Hannay is always in character as a confident, well-mannered gentleman with a refined speaking voice. Director Peer Amster and Sandys wisely ignore the vocal pacing of the original film in favor of something that sounds a bit like Ronald Colman, once Hollywood’s favorite Englishman (A Tale of Two Cities, also 1935). If the laughs from the more than two-hour production were divided into four parts, Sandys would have his share, but there are times when he looks like the straight man for the three players constantly changing their costumes, starting with Ms. Nealis but also the Mutt-and-Jeff team of tall, bald Rob Johansen as Clown 1 and shorter, wider Joe Foust as Clown 2.
No matter how popular The 39 Steps has been with audiences, it can only be performed by a professional company. You need two guys who are practiced gymnasts, mimes and dialect mimics to pull these off. In one breathstopping sequence set in the Edinburgh train station, the two Clowns switch from conduc-