Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Step Work

May 10, 2010

l-r: Eric Hissom, Claire Brownell, Scott Parkinson, and Ted Deasy in The 39 Steps
Photo: Craig Schwartz/CTG 2010

Five years after it’s birth, Patrick Barlow’s stage adaption of The 39 Steps from John Buchan’s 1915 novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s later movie, arrived in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson Theater. This touring production delivers on the genteel antics that have made the play so popular in both London and New York, with its combination of physical humor and quick-change acting. Barlow took much of Hitchcock’s film and turned it on its head by enforcing a number of restrictions in this stage adaptation. First and foremost, all of the roles are played by four actors who may play multiple roles even in the same scene simultaneously. On top of this, the work is littered with references and in-jokes about Hitchcock’s other films. There is a campy quality to the proceedings, but Barlow never turns against the material in the slightest. In fact, his reliance on low-tech stage magic often creates the feeling of a loving homage with a big smile on its face more than a sharp-tongued farcical send up. A chase scene involving shadow puppet bi-planes coming "North by Northwest" is particularly sweet.

The basic elements are familiar to anyone with a working knowledge of the spy fiction genre, which Buchan more or less created in the early part of the last century. A man, Richard Hannay, walks into an unexplained murder that he is later wrongly accused of and he must go on a mission to clear his name and save his country. Hitchcock, like virtually everyone who has touched this novel in adapting it over the years, added a female lead to the story, played splendidly in this production by Claire Brownell. The broad melodramatic acting provides more than a few laughs, but this is easily accessible stuff. You could easily take younger child to the show and they would likely enjoy it if they aren’t so young to be put off by stage gunshots. But for all the nostalgia, it felt a little perfunctory to me. It kept bringing to mind a much more satisfying project in the same vein, the Kneehigh Theater’s adaptation of Nöel Coward’s Brief Encounter, which visited New York last year. Kneehigh used many of the same tactics to similar comic effect except for the cast size restrictions. But Brief Encounter seemed to tap into something deeper than just a love for movies or Coward by remembering an entire cultural moment that had long since passed. The 39 Steps is enjoyable but at this point it feels like something fashioned for mass consumption. The show runs through this weekend at the Ahmanson Theater downtown.


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