Saturday, October 12, 2013

theatre review THE 39 STEPS- Phoenix Theatre, October 6

I'm now the Phoenix Theatre Critic for the national website Talkin' Broadway and my first review can be found by clicking on this link.

The 39 Steps is one of those plays that regional theatres have been scrambling to produce. With a minimal set and small cast, it is relatively inexpensive to produce. But when you have a sublime cast like the one currently on display at the Phoenix Theatre, mixed with superb direction, the end result vastly outweighs the simple bare bones nature of the show.

I am a huge fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock and, since Hitchcock was known for his sense of humor, it is only natural that The 39 Steps, one of his earliest films, has been whipped into a comic theatrical soufflĂ©. The 1939 film was based on the novel by John Buchan and was such a successful film that it has been remade several times. While some of those remakes have stayed closer to the Buchan novel than Hitchcock did, the play stays close to his film, with a few references to other Hitchcock films as well. Written by Patrick Barlow, this play premiered in the UK in 2005 (where it still runs today) and a two-year Broadway run commenced in 2008, followed by an Off-Broadway run of almost one year. The UK production won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy.

Toby Yatso and Pasha Yamotahari 
The plot of the film, play and novel centers on a man falsely accused of a murder as he seeks to prove his innocence by fleeing across the English and Scottish countryside. This theme is one that Hitchcock revisited many times over his illustrious career, in such films as North by Northwest and Saboteur. It is also a theme that many other books, plays and movies have focused on, the innocent man accused who must prove his own innocence.

John Hannay is a single man who, during a night out at a music hall, finds himself taking home a frightened woman after shots are fired at the theatre. He later learns that not only is she a spy but she is the one who fired the shots. She claims she is being followed by assassins who know that she has uncovered a plot to smuggle British military secrets out of the country. The man overseeing this plot runs an espionage organization called "The 39 Steps."

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

Now, while the details of the plot and all of the films based on the novel are as serious as possible, the stage version 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, the three other actors must play all of the other 100-plus characters in the show. The cast is so good at becoming multiple characters that there were times when I believed there must be other actors waiting in the wings when all four actors were already on stage.

Michael Kary plays Hannay with the perfect touch of a proper English gentlemen (by way of Canada, no less). Kary has the right balance of manners, charm and good looks to easily carry off the leading man part. And while he doesn't get as much chance to dive into the slapstick nature of the show as his co-stars do, he still manages to provide some laughs simply with his facial gestures. Kary's English accent is also superb.

Angelica Howland has only three parts to play, those of the three women Hannay comes in contact with, but she so brilliantly plays each one, it is difficult to accept that it is the same actress. 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 hilarious ones as well. Like Kary, Howland's facial gestures and even just a simple glance not only provide an additional layer of humor but also add the necessary romantic tone to the play. I credit director Matthew Weiner with the nice shadings of romance amongst the jokes.

All of the other parts are played by Toby Yatso and Pasha Yamotahari and they are both amazing in their ability to play so many different roles, sometimes within seconds of each other. The use of various wigs, mustaches and hats, partnered with Yatso's and Yamotahari's rubber-like features and skills at accents, is a theatrical delight as well as pure insanity at many times. Add to this the fact that Yatso is about a foot taller than Yamotahari and you have a partnership made in comic heaven. Having seen this play with the original Broadway cast I have to say that Yatso and Yamotahari exceed the original two Broadway "clowns."

Wiener's direction not only strikes the right balance of comedy and romance but the required amount of suspense as well. Every chase scene and escape from the film, including some 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. When done correctly, simple things can easily come together to provide theatrical magic. It reminded me a lot of the recent Broadway play Peter and the Starcatcher (coming to ASU/Gammage in January) which also uses a small cast to play many parts and minimal sets to portray various locations. Wiener is adept at making us believe in the magic of theatre through techniques like making a car out of a few set pieces. He also has a keen ability to direct this cast of four into a strong comedic team.

Robert Kovach has created a set design that evokes the backstage of a theatre, as if the cast we are seeing are "performing" this show within a show, and he also cleverly constructs the numerous settings out of just a few simple set pieces. Costume designer Connie Furr has come up with dozens of colorful costumes, hats and other wardrobe pieces to help us to easily identify the various characters in the play. Paul Black's lighting design provides the shadows and light of a suspense film.

In addition to references to other Hitchcock films, music from his films in included as well. The small bits of music work perfectly as a theatrical score for the action on the stage, both suspenseful and romantic. The play does get a little tired toward the end, and there are a few moments when the cast gets just a little too broad for my taste, but The 39 Steps is a homage to the master of suspense himself, and any fan of Hitchcock, suspense, comedy, spoof or theatrical imagination is bound to have a good time with the Phoenix Theater's production.

The 39 Steps is being performed at The Phoenix Theatre, 100 E. McDowell Rd. Phoenix. through October 20th. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling (602) 254-2151.

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