Tuesday, May 15, 2012

theatre review THE 39 STEPS, George Street Playhouse, May 12

I am a huge fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock.  And since Hitchcock himself was known for his sense of humor it is only natural that one of his earliest films has been whipped into a comic gem of a theatrical souffl√©.   

Hitchcock's film The 39 Steps was based on the novel by John Buchan and was such a successful film that the 1935 film has been remade several times.  While some of those remakes have stayed closer to the Buchan novel then Hitchcock did, the play of The 39 Steps sticks close to the film and throws in references to other Hitchcock films as well.  Written by Patrick Barlow, the play first premiered in the UK in 2005, followed by a three year run in New York.  The UK production even won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy.  The production at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, NJ runs through this coming Sunday, May 20th.

Stacie Morgan Lewis and Howard
McGillin getting ready to "check in" at
the Bates Motel.
The plot of the film, play and novel centers on a man falsely accused of a murder and what he does to prove his innocence as he flees across the English countryside.  This theme would be one that Hitchcock revisited many times over his illustrious career such as in North by Northwest and Saboteur.  It is also a theme that many other books, plays and movies have focused on.

John Hannay is a single man who after a night out at the music hall finds himself taking home a frightened woman after shots are fired at the theatre.  He later learns that she is a spy and the one who fired the shots as she is being followed by assassins who know that she has uncovered a plot where others are planning to smuggle British military secrets out of the country.  The man overseeing this plot runs an espionage organization called "the 39 steps." 

The woman spends the night at his flat, and the next morning, when Hannay finds her stabbed and dying, she gives him a few last details as to how he can help her stop the secrets from getting out of the country.   Hannay, on the run from the police who suspect him of the murder must stop the secrets from getting out as well as attempt to prove his innocence without getting killed by the assassins himself.

McGillin -it is amazing how a scarf with
a wire in it, a bicycle handle and some
lighting and music can come
together to portray a getaway
on a bicycle

Now while the details of the plot and all of the films based on the novel and original film are as serious as possible, the play is played for laughs and one of the ways it achieves this is to have all of the parts played by a cast of only four people.  And since the character of John Hannay is on stage for almost the entire time, it means that the three other actors must play all of the other 100 plus parts in the show.  The cast is so adept at playing multiple characters as well as so in sync with the split second costume changes that there were many times when I believed there where other actors off stage waiting to come on when all four of the actors were on stage.

Howard McGillin plays "Hannay" with the perfect touch of a proper English gentlemen (by way of Canada, no less) and he throws himself into the part.  I've seen McGillin in numerous Broadway musicals and I don't remember seeing him have so much fun in a part as in this one.  His performance did remind me somewhat of his role in the Broadway musical The Mystery of Edwin Drood where he also played an Englishman. 

Stacie Morgan Lewis only has three parts to play, those of the three women Hannay comes in contact with, but she so brilliantly plays each one, that you really can't imagine it is the same actress playing all three parts.  The accents alone, especially the one she uses for Annabella Schmidt, the German woman whom Hannay is accused of killing, are not only legitimate accents but also hilarious ones as well.

Every other part in the play is played by Mark Price and Michael Thomas Holmes and they are both amazing in their abilities to play so many different roles, some of them within seconds of each other.  The use of various wigs, mustaches and hats partnered with Price's and Holmes' rubber like features and skills at accents is a theatrical delight as well as pure insanity at many times.

Mark Price and Michael Thomas Holmes
Also, every chase scene and escape from the film, including ones on trains and in cars takes place on stage using a combination of theatrical magic and only a few set pieces.  It is amazing how a few trunks and some lighting can come together with your imagination to portray a chase on top of a train.  We saw the play on Broadway and enjoyed that and seeing another production of this play reminds me again how simple things can come together to provide theatrical magic.  It reminded me a lot of the current Broadway play Peter and the Starcatchers that also uses a small cast to play many parts and minimal sets to portray various locations.
The play includes references to other Hitchcock films and also uses music from his films as well.  The music works perfectly as a theatrical score for the action on the stage.  There is even a cameo by Hitchcock himself.

Mark Shanahan, who was an understudy in the Broadway production directs the George Street production.  He has also directed other productions of the play before and while he sticks close to what worked brilliantly on Broadway he appears to throw in a few of his own comical bits as well.  The play does get a little tired toward the end, but is still a fun treat for fans of theatrical imagination, spoofs and comedies. 

The play of The 39 Steps is a homage to the master of suspense himself, and any fan of Hitchcock, suspense, comedy and the theatre is bound to have a good time.

Official George Street Playhouse Website

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