Theater Review | ‘The 39 Steps’
In a rekindling of film noir style meets Three Stooges humor, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps presented by Arizona Theatre Company is a laugh-out-loud display of versatile acting. Written by John Buchan in 1915, then adapted for the silver screen by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, and now re-adapted for theater by Patrick Barlow in 2005, this version is not your great grandfather’s Hitchcock production.
If you’ve seen Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps on film, or any Hitchcock film for that matter, you’ll remember the long pauses of silence and the slow development of the plot that, although intrinsic to the Golden Age of Cinema, is lackluster and boring today. Barlow, it seems, has taken note that today’s audience just doesn’t have the attention span for such pauses, and has done away with them completely, leaving only room for double-quick lines and uninterrupted gags. This is more than a shock, albeit a pleasurable one, for those imagining a show that is true to Hitchcock’s dry and serious style. An interesting note to mention is the partnership Arizona Theatre Company has made with FilmBar in downtown Phoenix. At FilmBar, audiences can see Alfred Hitchcock’s film version of The 39 Steps throughout this play’s duration at the Herberger Theater Center.
What begins as a man, Richard Hannay, reminiscing over his glass of dark liquor the frivolity of life and the unimportance of his death takes the audience into a flashback of events that make up the main portion of the play. Hannay, played by Robert O. Berdahl, is met by a mysterious woman at a theater show by the name of Annabella Schmidt, played by Sarah Agnew. Schmidt is being pursued by unscrupulous men who have intended her harm, as we later find out, and her untimely demise leads Hannay on the spy adventure of a lifetime.
Do not be saddened by Agnew’s momentary departure from the show, dear audience, as this play’s genius lies in that all 150 characters in this play are performed by four actors. Berdahl remains the hero of the story throughout, which makes this accomplishment an even greater feat. Berdahl, although stuck in the same character throughout the play, is exactly who we want as the anchor to endless displays of ridiculous antics. Like a buoy in the ocean, Berdahl moves an sways with the action around him, but holds his ground as the predominant force driving the plot and never missing a beat. Most often, leads are forgotten in their grounding roles in that they provide the least shocking actions and most conservative attitudes in the show. Although this is true as the play is written, the unspoken actions of Berdahl’s character choices for Hannay is what makes his part worthwhile.
There is something to be said about slapstick humor, and it is that returning from intermission means a harder sell for the audience. All the action and comedy sold at face value during the first half returns in the second half as a slow restart to the fire that kept the first half alive. Although the audience struggles to find the humor at the beginning of the second half, by the time the show is over, there is nothing but standing ovations and joy at what this show has brought to downtown Phoenix.
Agnew, playing multiple roles of the damsel in distress, but also branching out to characters such as a Scottish line dancer, differentiates her characters vocally better than any other member of the cast. When accents are used to try to convey a different character, many times the actor is taken as disingenuous and unconvincing. Agnew, however, creates the best differentiation I have ever seen on stage with her vocal talents. Beginning as a German spy, turning into a British woman, then into a Scottish housewife, then back into a British woman, Agnew makes every single one of her characters is exactly what we imagine them to be. Genuine.
Although it sounds like the play could not have been better, I have saved the award-worthy portion of the cast for the end. Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert make up the majority of the remaining side cast, and frankly, they steal the show. Listed only as “Clown” in the playbill, I would respectfully agree that clown is the best description for the characters and pranks these two immensely talented actors provide to this whirlwind escapade. There is no match in my mind for the variety these two bring to this show that I have ever seen. One minute, they’re vaudeville performers. The next, They’re salesmen. Then policemen, inn-keepers, politicians, farmers, bad guys, good guys, husbands, wives, and the like. In some of the scenes, they alternate between characters faster than you could blink! An act of their own, Lichtscheidl and Seifert are all the characters bundled into two performers that we, as the audience, fall in love with every 39 steps of the way.
It’s comedy. It’s drama. It’s ridiculous. Spending time away from the drollery of everyday life at Arizona Theatre Company’s The 39 Steps at the Herberger Theater Center is the cure to any case of boredom, no matter how strong. Come see this show to be entertained, to be intrigued and, most importantly, to laugh.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps runs February 9 – 26 at at the Herberger Theater Center, 222 E. Monroe St., (602) 347-1071. Single tickets range in price from $33-$64.