Vicki Paris Goodman
The 1935-made movie The 39 Steps was the first of Alfred Hitchcock’s films to gain wide attention here in the US. It was a fast-paced dramatic thriller, serious in tone and story line while farcical in its intensity and spirit of adventure. The film, which was packed with colorful characters and a wrongly accused hero, hinted at the distinctive qualities that characterized Hitchcock’s later works.The more recently contrived stage-play spoof of the same name attempts to tell the story in comic melodrama style with only four actors! The Long Beach Playhouse production accomplishes that goal with flair and great fun. Since the part of suave protagonist Richard Hannay keeps actor Jeremy Bear busy start to finish, the other three cast members pick up the remaining dozens of roles, sometimes playing more than one character at once to hilarious result.The play begins in the London flat of a restless Hannay. A bachelor of 37, Hannay seems to be struggling with finding some meaning in life. While attending a cabaret performance of the amazing Mr. Memory, whose mind seems to retain everything he’s ever seen or heard plus some, Hannay meets a mysterious and beautiful woman terrified of two men waiting outside. When she tells him she is a spy attempting to foil an evil plot to send a particular scientific formula outside the country, Hannay doesn’t believe her until she staggers toward him the next morning with a knife in her back.Before dying in Hannay’s arms, the woman hands him a map highlighting a location in Scotland while breathlessly whispering the words “39 steps.” When Hannay is, naturally, sought by authorities for the woman’s murder, he is motivated to evade law enforcement while heading for Scotland to solve the mystery of the “39 steps.”The rest is a madcap sequence of planes, trains, and automobiles amid the heightened emotion of pre-WWII Europe.
What makes this production so entertaining are the wonderful cast, and director Dale Jones’ attention to detail. Madeleine Heil does a splendid job depicting the very sophisticated woman spy, as well as the attractive wives of two Scottish innkeepers and a disbelieving female stranger. Romantic electricity between Hannay and each of these women fills the air.
Mark Davidson and Michael Chiboucas handle the myriad other roles, replete with costume changes galore as well as transformations of demeanor, accent, and even sex! General understudy Robert Agiu ably substituted, as scheduled, for Mark Davidson in the performance we attended. He and Chiboucas were terrific!
But this play can’t succeed without someone like Bear in the role of Hannay. In Bear’s hands, Hannay is charming, understated, quietly charismatic, even morally upright in a gentleman’s sort of way. He also grounds the action, keeping its preposterous premise from going too far. Bear could carry the show, but his supporting cast made that unnecessary.
Audience members had to pay close attention, lest they miss some of the subtler gags, such as the degree to which the Scottish accent becomes unintelligible the further north one travels, and the clever references to the titles of many of Hitchcock’s other films.
Ingenious props and theatrical devices abound to accomplish all of the switches in locale and modes of transportation without requiring actual set changes and expensive vehicles. Costume designer Donna Fritsche must have worked many long hours on this one. Certainly, prop master and sound designer Larry Mura did the same. Valiant effort makes for a worthy production.
The 39 Steps continues on the Long Beach Playhouse Mainstage through Oct. 25. General-admission tickets are $24, senior tickets are $21 and student tickets are $14 with valid student ID. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, with Sunday matinees are at 2pm. The Long Beach Playhouse is located at 5021 E. Anaheim St. Call (562) 494-1014, option 1, for reservations and information. Tickets are also available online at lbplayhouse.org .