.Review: ‘The 39 Steps’

TheatreWorks' Hitchcock sendup has flashes of brilliance, but mostly meanders

WRONG TURN: A farcical take on classic noir, ‘The 39 Steps’ misses more marks than it hits.

The 39 Steps is a sugary summer trifle that’s as sweet as it is undemanding. Based on John Buchan’s 1915 spy novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie, Patrick Barlow’s farce is at once a mashup, an homage and a sendup.

Every time the bad guys show up in film noir garb or a fascistic outfit, the playwright ditches their shadowy talk or actions. He’s interested in the mollifying effects of daylight. Espionage and wartime intrigues aren’t on the agenda. The joke we’re told is that anything threatening—a knife in the back or a bullet to the chest—is only a fake, a theatrical conceit we’ve seen many times before. But if the audience is always conscious of the artifice, when can it begin to suspend its sense of disbelief?

The play’s built-in gimmick doesn’t solve that problem. Apart from Lance Gardner’s leading man performance as Richard Hannay, the three supporting actors play multiple roles. The need for quick costume changes turns every scene into a physical comedy gag or extended routine. When Ron Campbell steps into a premade wig and housecoat ensemble, his voice gets shrill the second he becomes a house cleaner. This approach brings ham and camp together, often on a collision course. The cast also moves the action along by maneuvering props every which way about the stage, as well as by taking hurried turns at the sound effects table.

In this genre, the audience expectantly waits for the moment when someone will stumble, gum up their lines or get wrong-footed. Rhythmically, the script should gradually be amping up the mania to test the actors: Will they be able to keep up with the frantic pace? But there weren’t any feverish mistakes, save for one casually dropped and picked-up newspaper. The actors got all their lines right and hit their marks but were also directed to be too careful and self-contained. Gardner was the exception. He had the advantage of playing only one type of character, an extraction from Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man. From there, he could improvise and use silly inflections without straying very far from representing an actual, living breathing man.

As they sprinted from one character to the next, his cast mates had to keep throwing their voices into their own bodies. It reminded me of a ventriloquist’s act. That’s not to say that Annie Abrams’ German agent—or Campbell’s professor or Cassidy Brown’s innkeeper—weren’t amusing. But the laughs (chuckles, rather than guffaws) were as fleeting as each rapid change of identity. Gone in under several seconds. For a farce to work, the ongoing effect of these stunts should have been cumulative.

The set design also interfered with my imagination. It looked perilously large, swallowing the actors up, and unrelated to the time and place. Was the palette meant to evoke a 1920s Paris dance hall or the interior of a suburban American restaurant in the 1980s? I wanted to focus on any number of things besides the ungainly, towering orange curtain draped at the back of the stage. But when Gardner mimed a slow-motion run or Abrams wriggled her body in the throes of death, my eyes darted above or behind them. If the set had been designed with minimalism in mind, or something more abstract, the actors wouldn’t have had to compete with such heavy furnishings.

The only moment that completely caught me off guard came when Campbell wooed a mop. It was a small, daffy flash of theatrical magic, a tangent that reflected back on Hannay’s dizzy romantic entanglement and then neatly and abruptly vanished. Despite all the hubbub buzzing around him, I believed that he really loved that singular mop with her ropy head of hair—especially when he started scrubbing the floor with it. I liked that dash of nonsense because it was unhinged, and the plot, which was already so full of holes, could finally be tossed aside.

Tonally, the production favors a familiar and easy sense of kookiness. There were several Easter eggs that referenced Hitchcock, including but not limited to Rear Window, North by Northwest and a projection of the portly director’s famous silhouette. But Hitchcock’s visual and verbal wit made his characters feel real. We endured suspense on their behalf. The trouble with Barlow’s 39 Steps is that there’s none to be had.

The 39 Steps
Thru Sept. 15, $30+
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley


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