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Theater Review: ‘The 39 Steps’ is Frolicsome, Hollow Hitchcock

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CHICAGO – The stage may is noticeably stripped, and the absence of technical advancement well-viewed. But the brass creativity emanating from “The 39 Steps”, the rollicking adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s quieted film, is consummately endowed. In a certain albeit undeniable sense, the Master of Suspense’s screen canon has always been ripe for the satirical plucking. Permeated with harrowing plot twists, forlorn femme fatales, and disoriented- though always dignified- heroes, Hitchcockian thrillers offer the sort of dramatic abundance about which most Broadway producers can only daydream.

HollywoodChicago.com Comedy/Tragedy Rating: 3.0/5.0
Play Rating: 3.0/5.0

Both John Buchan’s original 1915 novel and Hitchcock’s 1935 screen adaptation followed a quick-paced, English-flavored thriller conceit. The narratives employed heady espionage, boiling international conflict, and the staple of mistaken identity. The stage conversion of “The 39 Steps”, adapted by Patrick Barlow and with conceptualization by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, renders much of the same recipe. But slapstick and schtick are the go-to ingredients here.

The cast of “The 39 Steps”” target=
The cast of “The 39 Steps”.
Photo credit: Craig Schwartz 2009

This delightfully glib production, now in its first excursion to the Chicago stage, relies heavily on the accoutrements of sportive farce. Trick lighting, momentous scoring, an accidental injury abound. The conceit is simple yet auspicious in its form. Four actors perform Hitchcock’s spy noir verbatim, creating a desideratum for frequent pratfalls, dozens of quick-changes (including several drag turns), and general onstage buffoonery.

The plot follows the seemingly innocuous evening activities of Richard Hannay (a droll Ted Deasy) whom we meet heading to the London Palladium for a bit of vaudevillian spectacle. After a fun shot is fired from the theatre balcony, our reluctantly heroic bachelor becomes entangled in a plot involving cabal reconnaissance and the overall intention-isn’t it always?- to destroy Great Britain and its military prowess. As typifies most Hitchcockian odysseys, Hannay encounters a plethora of odd-shaped, odd-intentioned characters along his venture to save the Union Jack from Germanic invasion. Prudish farmers, Scottish inn takers, and saucy blondes collectively leaven the antic-riddled comedy.

These auxiliary characters are played with impressive dexterity by the production’s main acting trifecta, Claire Brownell, Eric Hissom, and Chicagoan Scott Parkinson. Zig-zagging their way through a sprint relay of Deutsch accents, zany cabal officers, and tolling pantomime, the trio positions itself as the willful- and rightfully earned- star of the entire production. The ensemble is careful to navigate the zoinks-like pastiche that notable director Maria Aitken has developed here. It is an obstacle course that includes shadow puppetry, light and fog acrobatics, and delusory costuming.

Claire Brownell and Ted Deasy star in “The 39 Steps”” target=
Claire Brownell and Ted Deasy star in “The 39 Steps”.
Photo credit: Craig Schwartz 2009

Yet despite the production’s indelible runs on both Broadway and the West End, the touring incarnation has yet to uproot the requisite balance between heart and romp that the piece demands. Deasy plays the chary Hannay with an oft unwelcome plenitude of caricature, a portrayal that leaves little room for emotional truth. Which is unfortunate, as any seasoned comedic performer would tell you that the fundamental innards of successful humor are not the punch lines and whoopee cushions, but rather the honesty with which these are served.

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Consequently, the second act of the production loses a great deal of its hard-earned steam. The emotional stakes implicit in the script are too often refused manifestation by their performers. The preconditioned gimmicks arise in typical fashion, but by the 90-minute mark feel patterned and near exhaustion. Ultimately the piece achieves an imbalance between its deft innovation and unwillingness to eschew the urge to wink, nod, and elbow its audience. The fancy-free joviality makes for welcome entertainment, but as Hitchcock himself often espoused, it takes more than novelty to sustain the story.

”The 39 Steps” runs through May 30, 2010 at the Bank of America Theatre at 18 W. Monroe in Chicago. To purchase tickets or for more information please visit here. For half-price Chicago theater tickets, visit our partner Goldstar.

HollywoodChicago.com staff writer Alissa Norby

By ALISSA NORBY
Staff Writer
HollywoodChicago.com
alissa@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2010 Alissa Norby, HollywoodChicago.com

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