Theater review: 'The 39 Steps' at La Jolla Playhouse
“The 39 Steps,” Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 rush of cinematic adrenaline, is an alternating sequence of daring seductions and hair-breadth escapes. The movie, based on John Buchan’s book, is indeed an absolute frenzy of fugitive motion, masterfully guided by a director whose risk-taking style and astringent human vision never failed to bring viewers to the edge of the cliff.
Would you believe that the popular theatrical version, a who-would-have-thunk-it? sleeper that’s still attracting audiences on London’s West End and Broadway, tries to re-create the film with a mere cast of four, a joshing sense of humor prone to horseplay and special effects that are more college-revue than Cameron Mackintosh? Staged by the hit show’s director, Maria Aitken, this spry comic revamp, which opened Sunday at La Jolla Playhouse in a co-production with Seattle Repertory Theatre, sets out to prove that anything movies can do, theater can do less expensively and more hilariously.
Karl Marx’s dictum about history repeating itself, “first as tragedy, second as farce” is turning out to be an even more accurate description of stage blockbusters spun from big-screen sources. Light entertainment is the name of the game here. So instead of Hitchcock’s sharp visual artistry and suspense, trenchant social satire and sneaky sexual candor, we get galumphing slapstick, giggling references to “Psycho” and “North by Northwest” and winks to the audience about recalcitrant props and insubordinate scenery.
Patrick Barlow’s adaptation, based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, invites Aitken and her elbow-nudging quartet to pull out all the stops in larky ingenuity. Not interested in dark places or tackling anything profound, the production team adopts a simple yet effective strategy: Conquer by tickling.
Ted Deasy, dapper with a pencil mustache, square chin and tweedy suit, portrays Richard Hannay, the bachelor-hero whose night out at the music hall takes a surprising turn when a gunshot ignites a melee and an attractive foreign agent implores him to take her home. “It’s your funeral,” he tells her off-handedly — never suspecting that he’s speaking the literal truth.
In one of her three flamboyant female roles, Claire Brownell plays Annabella Schmidt, the seductive spy with the thick middle-European accent who’s battling a group of operatives trying to lift a dangerous state secret out of the country. A knife in the back abruptly ends her mission and sends Richard, who’s wanted for her murder, up to Scotland to thwart the evil plan threatening the British Isles, and more immediately, his own life.
On the train — toyishly recreated with plenty of fog and whistles — he encounters a chilly blond stunner named Pamela, who eventually gets entangled in his cat’s cradle nightmare. Brownell cuts an especially vivid impression as this brusque ingenue, who’d rather have Richard arrested than succumb to his allures. She’s the flinty opposite of Margaret, the beleaguered young Scottish wife (also played by Brownell), who’s practically drowning in romantic longing for Richard when he spends the night at her prison-like country home.
Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson indefatigably flesh out the rest of the cast, including Professor Jordan, the diabolical mastermind who’s missing the tip of a finger and "Mr. Memory,” the vaudevillian whose special gift is intricately tied to the plot. Half the fun is watching these performing speed demons handle logistical demands that must have been rehearsed with a stopwatch.
The production, featuring Peter McKintosh’s sets and costumes, Kevin Adams’ lighting and Mic Pool’s soundscape, keeps intact the deft Broadway design team. And the show, which contains a few nice touches of shadow puppetry, whizzes by to the audience's audible delight.
If you pop in the DVD of Hitchcock’s movie before or afterward, you may begin to doubt whether the laughter of the masses is something to be trusted. My advice: Enjoy the stage offering as a well-conducted escapist trifle, yet don’t be afraid to note how much more contemporary the nearly 75-year-old movie seems by comparison.
"The 39 Steps," Mandell Weiss Theatre, La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla. 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. $30–$65. (858) 550-1010. Running time: 2 hours, 5 minutes.
Photo: Top: Eric Hissom (left) and Ted Deasy. Bottom: Claire Brownell and Deasy. Credit: Craig Schwartz / La Jolla Playhouse