The 39 Steps
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 16, 2008
Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film The 39 Steps is one of the best movies ever made (and don't just take my word for it; look here). If you've never seen it, you really should: it's on TV sometimes, and I see that you can get the DVD on amazon.com for as little as $7.98. What you don't want to do—if you don't know The 39 Steps—is see the version that's currently running at the Roundabout Theatre Company on Broadway. It will ruin the movie for you, and the movie is something to be savored.
Indeed, even if you have seen The 39 Steps, I'm hard-pressed to understand why you'd want to spend time at this utterly pointless stage parody of it. Why is it that we want to deconstruct—dismantle; tear apart—the iconic best of our culture these days?
The brain child of conceivers Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, and adaptor Patrick Barlow, The 39 Steps is a scattershot spoof of Hitchcock's film, the John Buchan novel on which it was based, and other famous Hitchcockian masterworks. (Example of the latter: during a scene where some characters are driving speedily down a dark highway, the famous music from Psycho is used as underscoring.) The film's plot is played out more or less in its entirety on stage, though some of the sequences have necessarily been abridged; the story, briefly, concerns a suave man-about-town suffering from ennui who suddenly finds himself embroiled in an international espionage conspiracy. After a beautiful spy who has talked her way into spending the night at his apartment is murdered, he becomes a suspect. Richard Hannay (for that's his name) then spends the next few days on the run from the police, who believe he's a killer, and from the foreign agents who actually did kill the glamorous spy. On celluloid, this makes for a thrill-a-minute adventure tale.
On stage, directed rather slackly by Maria Aitken, it becomes the frame on which to hang a collection of not-very-funny jokes (example: Hannay says he'll escape out a window; the woman he's with tells him "Not that window—go out the REAR WINDOW") and not-very-original shtick (one of the actors plays two characters simultaneously by taking off and putting on different hats in rapid succession). The gimmick of this show, by the way, is that the entire story is acted out by just four actors: Charles Edwards, who tries unsuccessfully to satirize the unsatirizable Robert Donat as Hannay; Jennifer Ferrin as the three main females with whom Hannay becomes entangled (she's waaaay over the top as the spy, more successful as the women played in the film by Peggy Ashcroft and Madeleine Carroll); and Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders as everyone else. Sometimes the goal seems to be dead-on accuracy, as when Saunders first impersonates Mr. Memory, the Music Hall performer who unwittingly fuels the mystery. And sometimes the goal seems to be to mercilessly make fun of stuff in hopes of getting a laugh—as when Burton tastelessly and self-indulgently turns Godfrey Tearle's arch-villain into a comic Nazi out of a Mel Brooks film.
What's never clear is exactly what the point of the enterprise is supposed to be. Is it nothing more than non-stop hilarity? If so, the gags are insufficient in number or quality to deliver the goods. Is this meant to be a showcase for some master comic actors doing what they do best? Sorry, but some more accomplished comic actors are required for that to work out. Is the idea simply to parody old movies in general, or this movie in particular? Sid Caesar and Carol Burnett did it more economically and more deftly, long ago.
For me, there's nothing particularly funny about throwing stones at a work of art, even an admittedly pulpy, pop one such as this film by Hitchcock. There's certainly nothing worth $96.25 (the top ticket price) happening on stage at the American Airlines Theatre. If you'd like to watch too few actors create the illusion of a lot going on, ironically or in all seriousness, check out any number of indie theater offerings available around NYC (works by Ian W. Hill and Frank Cwiklik come immediately to mind). And if you'd like to see The 39 Steps, rent it from Netflix.