“How do you warn steps?” I think Pamela asks that question in each of the three versions of “The 39 Steps.” Espionage fiction fans have enjoyed the novel since its first publication in 1915. The book, by John Buchan (Baron Tweedsmuir), has never been out of print.
Film fans know the Hitchcock version, the original movie thriller, as one of the most entertaining landmarks in the 130 years of narrative cinema. Patrick Barlow’s comic adaptation of the movie has been running in London’s West End for seven years. This last week the Barlow got a decent production at Manhattan High.
Each of the three versions—novel, film, and play—tell the story of dashing Canadian Richard Hannay who just happens to be in a London music hall when shots interrupt a performance and a mysterious woman appears, begging him to take her home with him. The fast-moving events include Hannay’s identification as the woman’s murderer, his escape (via rail) into rural Scotland, his clash with local authorities, his stirring but unprepared political speech, and his being handcuffed to the attractive Pamela.
So the three 39 Steps are alike. But they also illustrate that The Medium is the Message, and so each one has a very different effect. The novel is procedural. The movie is like lightning. And the play, thanks to intentional mugging and high jinks, is funny.
What’s more, the stock version of the play, with four actors playing all thirty-nine or so speaking parts, is different from the MHS version, directed by Linda Uthoff. She has lots of good actors at her disposal, so she cast a dozen students to play the various parts. Now Trevor Bashaw, for example, still has to be a salesman, a paperboy (in the same scene), a radio announcer, the female landlord at a country inn, and a music hall type. But he only has those characters, and not twice that number as he would have in the conventional version of the dramatic adaptation.
Bashaw got the most of his appearances, as did, really, everyone in the cast. The crowd for the Thursday night show was particularly taken with Tianna Kelson’s Mrs. Jordon character, with her extreme gait. But the show actually belonged to Alex Tolar who, as a likable and harried Hannay is on stage for almost the entire show.
The production had Peggy Ryan costumes (no huge collars for Macy Lanceta’s Pamela), decent lighting, probably the best sound I’ve ever heard in the Rezac Auditorium, and a large crew capable of dealing with catastrophes—Tolar unintentionally knocked over a lamp as he left Hannay’s borrowed flat, and the glass shade broke over the stage, requiring some quick sweeping by personnel operating on their knees to avoid being seen as the play’s action continued.
As things were always going to move along very quickly, following Hitchcock’s division of events into scenes, the set was left very simple. A long black elevated passage ran from one side of the stage to the other, making (among other things) a dandy railroad bridge for Hannay to be chased onto. The simple wind effects there made this business one of the highlights of the evening.
Early and late scenes occurred in theaters, which were represented by roll-on stage boxes. The cast had some fun with a loose window frame in the crofter’s cottage—Charlotte Benjamin had the part played by the great Peggy Ashcroft in the Hitchcock movie.
Tolar (and Lanceta) were sufficiently clear in their expressions that those of us in the Rezac could follow the action even when it went fastest. And when it was fastest—as during the railroad bridge escape—that’s when things were funniest. This energetic production demonstrated the strengths that have made all three forms of “The 39 Steps” popular with large audiences for a long time. The book offers mystery, the movie offers action and suspense, and the play’s productions offer comic doubling and campiness and surprise. And all these media work best if their events are delivered quickly, with energy.