Monday, October 19, 2009

Revisiting "The 39 Steps"

When I first saw the delightful production of The 39 Steps at the American Airlines Theatre, I don't think I could have anticipated that it would have run for two years. But it was the little play that could, and one of the rare plays to transfer not once, but twice. The show closes in January, but I decided that I should check in one last time before it goes.

Of the original cast members, only Arnie Burton remains. Sean Mahon (The Seafarer), Jill Paice (Curtains) and Jeffrey Kuhn (Assassins) have assumed the other roles. The show is still bright and vibrant, scoring many of the laughs. My enjoyment the first time I saw it was tempered by the fact that I was in a house with a great many Hitchcock-philes. This time around, there weren't as many but it still managed to crack myself up, along with my show people SarahB and Byrne.

The play is still a mastery of theatrical invention and cleverness. Slyly self-aware, the evening moves at a rapid pace as memorable moments from Hitchcock's original film are recalled, with nods and winks at many of the famed director's other works. It's still a jaw-dropping marvel watching Man #1 and Man #2 (Kuhn and Burton) switch off between about hundred roles throughout the evening, as they switch off hats or wigs, dresses for trench coats with razor-sharp precision and flawless timing. While not the doppelganger for Robert Donat that the role's originator Charles Edwards was, Mahon brings charisma and bemusing wit as Richard Hannay, the "wrong man" at the center of the story. Paice is a pleasure to watch as his three leading ladies, with an especially hilarious over-the-top Scottish brogue.

The highlight remains the recreation of the chase on the Scottish moors, presented as a shadow puppet display. In a post show talk back we found out that that was a favorite moment for everyone in the show, as it is the moment involving the entire cast and crew. There's even the Hitchcock cameo. These and every other moments are so innately clever and imaginative that during the moments you're not laughing out loud, you're grinning from ear to ear. Watching Kuhn and Burton re-enact the hotel lobby scene still blows my mind.

My one issue with the show remains: it would work better without an intermission. Granted, I'm sure the actors can use the 15 minutes to catch their breath and regroup for the second half, but it would just add to the flow of the evening if it kept going in one shot. The show's final performance at the Helen Hayes Theatre is on January 10, 2010 after 771 performances, making it the longest-running non-musical play in seven years.

1 comment:

Steve On Broadway (SOB) said...

I completely concur on the intermission issue. I've also long wondered whatever happened to Jeffrey Kuhn, one of my favorite actors from Assassins. Somebody needs to get him back on stage in a musical.