It is said that, “Dying is easy. Comedy is hard.” Well, the latter is doubly, no, triply, no, quadruply, no, well… you get the idea in Fells Point Corner Theatre and The Collaborative Theatre’s deliriously, dizzying co-production of The 39 Steps ingeniously adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and (perhaps more familiar to audiences) the film by Alfred Hitchcock. And while comedy may indeed be hard, you’d never know it given the ridiculously talented cast of actors assembled by Director Anthony Lane Hinkle.
This troupe makes it look effortless as they speed through a plot like a racing train that becomes more absurd as the evening wears on, assuming multiple roles, often in the same scene, and false identities; engaging in sleights of hand and word play, and little bits of stage magic.
The play, which hews fairly closely to its source material, is about Richard Hannay aka Hammond aka McCrocodile amongst other pseudonyms, an initially unassuming British man (played by a perfectly charming Grayson Owen), who meets a counter espionage agent in a theatre. The agent is charged with breaking up a ring of spies called the 39 Steps. When the agent is killed early on, Hannay is accused of the murder and heads off to Scotland to try and stop the spy ring from stealing top secret information. What turns this pre-war spy thriller in to an uproarious farce is that the play is written to be performed by only four actors. Think more Monty Python and less Robert Ludlum.
The play premiered in the West End in 2006 and ran for nine years, making it one of the longest running plays in West End history. It opened on Broadway in 2008 and ran for two years. It recently enjoyed a successful off-Broadway revival. I saw the Broadway production many years ago and in both it and its London predecessor, the cast was comprised of three men and one woman. Here, Hinkle has divided his cast evenly along gender lines.
In addition to the aforementioned Owen, three of the female roles are played by the hilarious Ann Turiano, who often reminded me of Victoria Jackson from her early SNL days. Billed as “The Clowns, et al” are Holly Elizabeth Gibbs, at times the heir apparent to Melissa McCarthy, and the goofy and affable Steven Shriner, who have the Herculean task of populating the rest of the world of the play. Not only do they pull off this feat with panache, but they do it without ever breaking character, which isn’t easy given the crazy hijinks that ensue. Actually, this is true for the entire quartet. Farce is most effective when the actors are totally committed and play the material straight. Humor is the result. It is to Hinkle and his company’s credit that they present the material with a level of commitment and truth that interacts with the absurd in the most delightful ways.
The ingenious and flexible set and costume design (also by Mr. Hinkle) transport the audience to various locales from a London musical hall, to a train, to a rural farm, and a hotel in the Scottish countryside, among others with the simplest props and scenery (which also give a sly nod to a movie soundstage, though I’m unsure if that was intended). The costumes allow the actors to assume different identities and to change gender in an instant, for example, by pulling a hat out of a breast pocket or flipping the tails on a man’s overcoat up over the shoulder to become a woman’s shawl.
Kel Millionie’s lighting design sets the mood, giving the entire piece an appropriately nourish quality. In addition, Mr. Millionie and Mr. Hinkle employ a very large light box on the back wall of the stage and shadow puppets to represent various chase scenes and changes of location, to great humorous effect. The text, staging and design are peppered with references to other Hitchcock films such Strangers on a Train, North by Northwest and The Birds, to name but a few, some more obvious than others, and it was fun to try and catch them as they whizzed by.
Yes, the jokes fly fast and furious in The 39 Steps. Don’t expect to catch all of them. You won’t. Don’t expect all of them to land. They don’t. How could they? Nevertheless, I’d be willing to bet that The 39 Steps has more laughs per minute than any show currently running in Baltimore, make that any show that’s opened this season! Still, the production does drag slightly for part of the second act, but I suspect this is a pacing issue that will work itself out once the cast has a few more shows under its belt; I saw the first performance.
Once The 39 Steps gets going, it’s a twisting, turning roller coaster of laughs hurtling towards its neat and tidy conclusion. Check common sense and rational thought at the door. By the end, your face may just be frozen in a state of perpetual giddiness. A heaping dose of silliness, for me at least, was the perfect tonic to get through a long, cold winter night.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.