Theater Review: 'The 39 Steps'

By: 
Ben Miles

Though ”The 39 Steps”  is a melodramatic novel, first published in 1915 and authored by John Buchan, it’s probably best known as a 1935 film by that master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. In the early 2000s, Patrick Barlow adapted the novel and screenplay to the live theater. This time, however, the early twentieth century novel and the Depression-era movie were transformed into a singular twenty-first century stage farce. After premiering in the United Kingdom in 2005, it was recognized with an Olivier Award for Best Comedy. It  made its Broadway debut in 2008.

Now, ”The 39 Steps” has made its way to Long Beach’s International City Theatre and, after seeing it, it’s difficult to imagine ever viewing the Hitchcock film without thinking about this farcical stage conceit and laughing out loud. Directed with exquisite timing by Jamie Torcellni, with a cast of four – in two acts and within about two-hours – embody some one-hundred and fifty characters.

The plot is convoluted and involves the lead character, Richard Hannay, attending a performance of Mr. Memory, showcasing a man with extraordinary powers of recall. During the demonstration a fight erupts and gunshots are heard. In the subsequent uproar, Hannay ends up consoling the panicked Annabella Schmidt. Annabella convinces Hannay to take her back to her living quarters, where she reveals that she is an espionage agent being pursued by assassins committed to killing her.

With more intricate complications on the way, what makes this farce fun is that it never slows its pace to make sure the audience is keeping up with the story line. In fact, soon it becomes apparent that the story is not the most important ingredient of this fast-moving farce. Rather, it’s the performers’ dedication to straight-faced absurdity that makes the slapstick shenanigans the prime ingredient here. Farces can run the gamut from funny to fetid, all within the same play. Fortunately for So Cal theatergoers, this ICT production of “The 39 Steps” leans more toward the former than the latter.

With cleverly malleable stagecraft by scenic designer Fred Kinney, perfect (1930s) period costuming Kim DeShazo, with the shift in places and spaces aided by lighting designer Stacy McKenney Norr  and the indispensable sound  engineering of Dave Mackey, the quartet of players render such distinct and enjoyable characterizations that we in the audience are won over from the first step to the last.

As Richard Hannay, Eric Wentz is as physical a comedy performer as you’re likely to see on this or any other Southland stage. From his sleeping fits – filled with amusingly exaggerated tosses and turns – to his escape atop a “moving” train (see it to believe it) – Wentz delivers a fully farcical, yet credible, performance.

Playing not only the doomed Annabella, but also an unsuspecting train-traveler, and a farmer’s wife — Ashley Morton is a masterful comedienne, with chameleon abilities. It doesn’t hurt that Morton also offers much feminine allure.

Then there is the duo of Bo Foxworth  and Louis Lotorto who together excel in incarnating over a hundred other characters. Their quick-change routines and physical escapades are in themselves worth the price of admission. Plus, the pratfalls performed here seem to be injury-defying.

The conceit for “The 39 Steps” is inspired by the novel, but it’s the auteur Alfred Hitchcock to whom tribute is paid in the staging of ”The 39 Steps.” Sly references to such Hitchcock classics as “Strangers on a Train, “North by Northwest,” “Vertigo” and, of course, “Psycho” are easily made, making this family-friendly play all the more fun.

 “The 39 Steps” continues at Long Beach’s International City Theatre –  through July 8. Evening performances are  Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.  Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Sundays. International City Theatre is located at   the Long Beach Performing Arts Center, 330 East Seaside Way For reservations, call (562) 436-4610. For online ticketing and further information, visit www.InternationalCityTheatre.org.

ben@beachcomber.news

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