THE STEPS TO SUCCESS
They say that timing is everything. Timing certainly is everything in The 39 Steps, the English spy spoof that occupies a delightful, often amazing, and even suspenseful two hours at the Drury Lane Theatre.
The antecedents of The 39 Steps go back almost 100 years to John Buchan’s 1915 thriller novel about a man on the run from both the police and international spies. The novel was then converted into a 1935 classic motion picture by Alfred Hitchcock and finally to a farce adapted by Patrick Barlow in 2006. The Barlow comedy became enough of a hit in London to transfer to Broadway, where it ran for a profitable two-year run.
The hero of the story is Richard Hannay, a 37-year old Canadian bachelor who finds himself bored while in London and decides to go to the theater for a little diversion. His boredom ends spectacularly that night and in a matter of hours he is being pursued by British police who think he murdered a woman he took home with him from the theater. The woman actually sought Hannay’s protection from pursuing spies who seek The 39 Steps, not explained until the final moments of the play but definitely a secret that will imperil the Great Britain’s security. That’s the crux of the plot, which takes Hannay from London into the Scotland and then back to London where all is revealed during a performance at the famous Palladium music hall.
That may be the substance of the show narrative-wise, but it’s the manner in which the show is staged that gives so much pleasure. The entire story is performed by just four actors, one playing Hannay and two men (Clown 1 and Clown 2) and a woman who portrays a multitude of other characters. The number of characters who whizz through the stage version has been given at 150, and I won’t challenge the figure. I know that the three cumulatively play a milkman, a newsboy, traveling lingerie salesmen, all sorts of English and Scottish policemen, secret agents, Scottish politicians, a train conductor, a cleaning woman, theater performers, and an elderly husband and wife who operate a Scottish hotel.
What elevates this basically silly play to triumphant heights is the astonishing quick-change artistry executed by Angela Ingersoll (the sole woman), and Jeff Dumas (Clown 1) and Paul Kalina (Clown 2). Their genius at switching characters, and genders, in the blinking of an eye is a continuous wonder and had the opening night audience hooting their approval. The skill at donning and discarding costumes, wigs, and accents could make the show a one-joke exercise, but the humor and dexterity of the quick changing is continuously fresh and right on schedule every moment. Occasional flubs are built into the performances to give the spectators some additional laughs.
Dumas and Kalina work together seamlessly, shifting characters with such ingenuity and speed that one suspects that the management has actually sneaked extra actors on stage. How else to explain the micro second switches between the Scottish hotel operators and the pursuing spies almost in front of our eyes? At such moments the play resembles a magic show more than a thriller satire.
The play follows the Hitchcock film closely, which means there is derring-do at a bridge and hair-breadth escapes. All are mimed on the Drury Lane stage with impressive athleticism, as when Hannay fights off a couple of policeman on a Scottish bridge constructed of two ladders and a plank or when he struggles to escape advancing policemen by clinging to the outside of an invisible moving train.
The 39 Steps is really a celebration of the artifice of the theater. The audience is gripped by Hannay’s struggles to clear himself of a murder charge and solve the titular mystery. At the same time, spectators can revel in a dazzling demonstration of how live theater fools the audience with lighting and makeup and props and other tools of stagecraft.
Drury Lane hired the perfect Richard Hannay in Peter Simon Hilton. He’s lanky and suave, unflappable and resourceful, urbane to his fingertips—altogether the perfect hero for the never-never land of espionage and danger that makes this a classic of the spy genre which occurred in the years before the realism and moral ambiguity of John LeCarre changed the genre forever.
David New has directed the show with wondrous facility. The rehearsals to hone the action to its pinpoint precision must have been pretty intense. The design team is a full partner in the success of the evening. Kevin Depinet frames all the action within the stage of the Palladium music hall, complete with second story boxes from which shots are fired at the beginning and end of the story. Tracy Dorman’s costumes and Rick Irvine’s wigs give the quick changing a credibility one must see to believe. The lighting by Rita Pietraszek, the sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen, and the properties of Nick Heggestad are full partners in the exceptional production values.
The show runs a bit over two hours with one intermission. The vehicle would work even better at about 90 minutes with no intermission. A few scenes, like Hannay and his lady friend handcuffed in a hotel room, and a scene at a Scottish political rally, lasted several minutes beyond their shelf life and could be condensed with profit. But I suspect that’s not a unanimous opinion. The opening night audience clearly loved every moment of the show and would object to eliminating any of the fun.
photos by Brett Beiner
The 39 Steps
Drury Lane Theatre in Oakbrook Terrace (Chicago Theater)
scheduled to end on August 26, 2012
for tickets, call 800.745.3000 or visit http://www.drurylaneoakbrook.com
for info on this and other Chicago Theater, visit http://www.TheatreinChicago.com