I think we can all agree that Alfred Hitchcock is a cinema genius. His films were groundbreaking not just for his times but also for his genre. Almost all of his films are distinguished classics that almost everyone has seen. So when I went to see NextStop Theatre Company’s play, The 39 Steps, based on the movie with the same title, I was super pumped. There was plenty of humor and a lot of talent in the production, but where Hitchcock’s reputation of being the “Master of Suspense” entered into the play at all, I couldn’t see.
The 39 Steps centers on the handsome Richard Hannay, a slightly bored English gentleman who one fateful night meets an enigmatic German woman who introduces the mystery of The 39 Steps. After she is murdered in his apartment shortly after their meeting, Hannay is forced to go on the run to avoid the police as well as getting wrapped up in the same trouble that seemed to follow the German spy because of her role in The 39 Steps. He meets a wide array of characters spanning from traveling salesmen, to a duplicitous professor, and to a possible love interest to spice up his regular life in ways he never imagined.
Something I appreciated from the outset of NextStop Theatre Company’s imagining of the play was their appreciation of Hitchcock. The scenery was rife with props and references to Hitchcock’s works (movie posters of The Birds and Vertigo as well as “Property of MGM” branded on a prop) and the script showed the same tongue-in-cheek homage to the great director with the inclusion of his titles and his iconic scores throughout the production. While I was having fun picking out these Hitchcock references, the audience was enjoying the extremely slapstick (almost to a fault, sometimes) humor that the actors were providing. The “Clowns,” as the playbook called them, were two actors who played I don’t even know how many roles. I was definitely the most impressed with these two, and I was probably also the most entertained by them, which is a good and bad thing. While the Clowns were essential to the comedic forces at work, that aspect seemed to define the play much more than the plot. I often found myself understanding their humorous back-and-forth much more than I did where they were in the plot. That seems odd for something that claims to be based on a classic Hitchcock production, because I really didn’t see him anywhere else. There was no intrigue, and because of that all the hard work on the part of the actors (one of the Clowns was visibly sweating from running around so much) wasn’t able to shine, and even made The 39 Steps drag on to the point of boredom.
If the play had been condensed to only one act, I think it would have been more successful. Almost the entire second act was intended purely for entertainment purposes and had basically no relevance to the plot, which in turn made my enjoyment of the comedy suffer. I can hardly even remember what the secret of The 39 Steps is because they completely rushed over it (the climactic moment!) in favor of yet another slapstick scene. This is really a shame too, because if I had written this review during intermission, I would have said it was funny, smart, and campy in the best of ways. Instead, because this production lasted nearly two hours with no apparent reason, I’m forced to say that it was slow-moving and meandering with splashes of humor throughout.
However, if this play had been oh, I don’t know, 45 minutes shorter, I could tell you that I thought the way the production dealt with the simple and low-budget staging was smart and witty. I especially enjoyed how the actors would move all the props themselves and use this to their comedic advantage, like the way that a toy plane was acted out as a plane crash or a dollhouse was placed on top of a chair then pointed out as “that big house” (which doesn’t sound clever, but really was in context). There was also some great physical humor and miming, I was really impressed with the way that the actors could simulate wind pushing against them while being on top of a train and sliding through a frame that was made to look like jumping out a rear window. The Clowns were especially great at this, but two hours straight of this type of humor was superfluous. Superfluous, actually, is a perfect way to sum up this production. If it had stuck with the simplicity that the production was grounded in, I would have enjoyed The 39 Steps as much as I wanted to.