“The 39 Steps” provides its audience with a rare combination: a fusion of slapstick humor and a suspenseful plotline owing itself to the legacy of one of film’s darkest directors, Alfred Hitchcock.
This show was terrific.
Four actors take on the roles of countless characters, ranging from archetypal villain to a train conductor to a lingerie salesman and all of the accents and mannerisms that go along with them. This feat alone seems daunting and is amplified further when one takes in the backdrop — 1930s Great Britain.
It is this sort of versatility, however, that I feel stretched the actors too far. While, on the surface, these fast-paced scene and wardrobe changes were seamless, they gave little chance for the audience to feel a true sense of empathy with any one particular character, save for the protagonist, Richard Hannay, played by Michael Kary.
The comedic aspect is definitely something that will appeal to most. While the audience was laughing throughout, a single scene had me in hysterics — Richard Hannay being pursued by two aviators in a biplane on his way to Scotland when a fog rolls in and calamity ensues.
Angelica Howland plays both of Hannay’s love interests: the mysterious femme fatale Annabella Schmidt, who lures him into espionage, and her antithesis, a staunch young woman named Pamela. Both characters provide a seriousness necessary to the show’s progression.
As far as chronology goes, much of the first act is taken up by Hannay’s escape to the highlands and can seem somewhat slow at times. The plot does get moving at the end of the act, when the audience is thrown a curveball and a villain is revealed.
The amount of work that went into this production is startling.
The set remains somewhat utilitarian throughout, and were it not for the elaborate costuming, I would call it minimalist. This in no way detracts from the staging, though. If anything, it only amplifies the chemistry between those on stage and creates a greater “wow” factor.
The scene in which Richard Hannay escapes from a train onto the bridge is marvelous, based almost entirely around the actors’ body language and movements, assisted only by a fog machine and a set piece centered around three or four ladders.
As a whole, “The 39 Steps” is built for lighthearted laughs. Director Matthew Wiener promises them — a lot of them, in fact.
You certainly won’t be disappointed on that front, but if you’re looking for a level of cautious deliberation — characteristic of Hitchcock’s films — you won’t find it here, despite numerous references to his work. Indeed, it is a testament to Hitchcock’s greatness that such references exist at all, seeing as his film was based on a novel by John Buchan and adapted into a play by Patrick Barlow.
Tickets for “The 39 Steps” start at $30 and can be purchased at Phoenix Theatre’s box office online at PhoenixTheatre.com, or by calling 602.254.2151. The show runs through Oct. 20.