39 Steps

 

A hilarious revival of the breakneck-paced Hitchcock knock-off.

 

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By Joel Benjamin

 

Welcome, 39 Steps. It’s good to have you back. This daffily amusing show with nothing in its witty little mind but making people laugh is being revived at the Union Square Theatre. A revival of the 2008 Broadway production with much of the original creative team intact and one original actor on board, this production, though not quite up to speed, has more laughs per minute than almost any other show around.

The 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film is a classic, an espionage thriller with a light touch. Although it helps to have seen the original Hitchcock film to catch some of the nuances of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the Charles Bennett/Ian Hay scenario, it isn’t absolutely necessary. The storyline, reconceived for the stage by Simon Carble and Nobby Dimon, is pretty clear.

Maria Aitken, the director the Broadway version and Peter McKintosh, set and costume designer for that staging, contribute their talents to this production, too. McKintosh’s set efficiently uses furniture that rolls on and off to indicate trains, kitchens, a room at an inn, etc. Two balconies on either side of the proscenium cleverly fake the music hall where Richard Hannay, played by Robert Petkoff, has the misfortune to witness a shooting during a London variety show featuring Mr. Memory, a man with a phenomenal ability to retain facts.

Petkoff is the only actor to play one role which he does with all the proper British reserve and tongue-in-cheek drollness. Brittany Vicars, an appealing newcomer, first appears as mysterious Annabella Schmidt whom Hannay meets during the shooting fracas. Using her femme fatale influence she convinces Hannay to hide her in his nearby flat. She is murdered with a map of Scotland in her hands and Hannay, framed for that crime, escapes and makes tracks (literally, on a train) for Scotland Yard to solve the crime. En route, he meets the two other women whom Ms. Vicars plays: beautiful blonde Pamela who at first hates and betrays Hannay to the police and gentle, abused Margaret, the wife of a rough-hewn rural farmer who helps him escape capture. Hannay is variously shot at, nearly drowned and handcuffed to Pamela which leads to a naughty scene at a cozy inn.

How Hannay escapes, gets Pamela to fall for him and how he eventually finds the killer involves scores of other characters including police, sheriffs, locals, musical hall employees, a local politician, etc., all played adroitly by two light-on-their feet actors, Arnie Burton and Billy Carter. Their breakneck costume changes, voice changes and posture changes peak when each has to simultaneously play two characters conversing which each other.

Arnie Burton (Clown #2) was in the original Broadway run in the same part. (His nimble way with character switching was also displayed in a fairly recent production of Charles Ludlam’s Mystery of Irma Vep. Burton is a hoot. Billy Carter (Clown #1) who has the unenviable task of playing Mr. Memory, is mind-blowing, too.

At the moment, this production isn’t quite up to speed, literally and figuratively. There’s a bit too much cutesy pausing for effect and some awkwardness that slows things down. A pesky malfunctioning curtain didn’t help. However, it’s clear that these four actors will be performing this very funny play at full steam very soon because, even now, they are laying the audience in the aisles, every joke, shtick and self-referential line registering with a pleasant jolt.

*Photos: Joan Marcus

39 Steps (open run)

Union Square Theatre  100 East 17th St., just east of Union Square New York, NY

Tickets: 877-250-2929 or www.ticketmaster.com

More information: www.39stepsNYcom

Running time: One hour 40 minutes

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