Through crossdressing, quick costume changes, handling a variety of props, putting on various wigs and hats, numerous accents, and physical alterations, three actors dazzlingly enact a gallery of a reported “150 characters.”
The flawless performing is combined with inventive direction, and numerous technical devices including strobe lights, shadow puppets, wind and smoke machines.
Richard Hannay, a single 38 year-old Canadian, living in 1930’s London, is restless one evening, and decides to attend a music hall. The show’s entertainer, Mr. Memory, is a savant, who can correctly answer any arcane question from the audience. Hannay meets a mysterious foreign woman there, later gets accused of a murder he didn’t commit, is chased by the police, gets embroiled in international intrigue, travels to Scotland, is handcuffed to a haughty young British woman, all before everything is excitingly resolved.
John Buchan’s 1915 novel was freely adapted by Charles Bennett and Ian Hay for Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935, breezy suspense British film. This award-winning theatrical adaptation premiered in England in 2005, and has been performed around the world since. Transferring to several theaters, the 2008 Broadway production ran nearly two years, and then moved to Off-Broadway where it ran nine months. Having toured throughout the United States, it has returned to New York City, in this Off-Broadway engagement.
Robert Petkoff wonderfully plays the dashing Hannay with playful seriousness. Arnie Burton, Billy Carter, and Brittany Vicars are the colossal company who rapidly portray all of the other roles. Ms. Vicars vividly plays three women of different types and nationalities. Billed as Clown #1 and Clown #2, Mr. Burton and Mr. Carter amazingly offer quick mini-portraits of policemen, railway workers, evil spies, wives, female hotel-keepers, randy businessmen, music hall performers, as well elements of nature such as bogs on the Scottish moors.
Working from Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon’s 1995’s original concept, Patrick Barlow’s adaptation is a witty, tongue-in-cheek, homage that recreates the plot of the film, with comic flourishes. There are also verbal, musical and visual references to other Hitchcock films such as The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest, The Lady Vanishes, Vertigo, The Birds, Strangers On a Train, and Psycho. There’s an updated nod to Downton Abbey.
Maria Aitken’s direction is fast paced, thrillingly theatrical, and utilizes relatively low-tech devices to achieve its cinematic effects. Like the film auteur it pays tribute to, Ms. Aitken’s work is visionary.
From the music hall, to the many other period locales, Peter Mckintosh’s set design is tremendously accomplished. His multitude of costumes are equally so. The lighting design of Kevin Adams and sound design of Mic Pool were both awarded Tony Awards for the 2008 production, and are both supremely instrumental to the show’s success.
A grand highlight of the show’s striking creativity is a hilarious chase sequence done with shadow puppets projected on to a large, old sheet-like screen. People, mountains, boats, and the Loch Ness Monster are represented. There’s also a flying bit done in a plane, with the pilot wearing goggles and a billowing white scarf.
With its marvelous cast of hugely versatile actors and imaginative stagecraft, 39 Steps, joyously endures as an ingenious and uniquely theatrical entertainment.
39 Steps (through January 3, 2016)
Union Square Theatre, 100 East 17th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-448-7849, or visit http://www.39stepsny.com
Running time: two hours with one intermission