The 39 Steps -- Theater Review

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You know the routine. The dapper English gentleman with the square jaw, pencil-thin mustache, perfect hair and impeccable accent is going to stick his tongue firmly in cheek and send Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 thriller "The 39 Steps" straight to the moon. When the dust has settled, not a single arched eyebrow or carefully framed film convention will be left standing, but our hero's scotch and soda -- and his hair -- still will be in place, God save the queen.

As parodies go, they don't get much better than this. Hitchcock practically invented the romantic-thriller genre, and his precisely calibrated film technique and signature smugness lend themselves nicely to spoof. So does the story that unfolds -- adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan -- with its inflated mock-heroic escapades, nefarious villains and romantic interludes laid out like pearls, or perils, on a taut string.

That said, what has made this show the toast of London, New York and the hinterlands during the past couple of years is its delicious style. Four actors do upward of 150 characters, changing clothes, hats, accents, appearance and anything else that isn't nailed down. Using little more than smoke, three ladders, a few stage props and a vast amount of imagination, locations and vocations are conjured practically from nothing. This is low-tech theater in the best sense of the word.

As opposed, shall we say, to high-tech theater with which we're all familiar during the past two or three decades. In that sense, let's call "Steps" the "un-Phantom" show: no crashing chandeliers and grand set pieces with enough wattage to illuminate the Plutonian depths, no noisy helicopters or dancing cats, for that matter. What a relief.

In this national touring production, directed by Tony-nominated Maria Aitken, Ted Deasy is Richard Hannay, the bored Brit who gets caught up in all the cloak-and-dagger derring-do. Deasy fits the part well but could use a little more bite to cut through the character's natural blandness. Claire Brownell does triple duty, starting out as Annabella Schmidt, whose knife-in-the-back demise sets the story in motion and turns Richard into a fugitive. Next she appears as curvy blonde Pamela, who can't make up her mind whether to turn Richard in or turn him on and winds up doing both. Best of all is her turn as a shy Scottish wife with an accent so thick one could spread it on bread.

Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson play the remaining legion of characters with superb style and wit. Changing identities at the drop of a hat or the twist of a head or called on to do various bits of shtick right out of vaudeville or English music-hall tradition, these two provide most of the show's merriment.

An evening of sublime silliness and escape, just when we need it most.

Venue: Ahmanson Theatre, Los Angeles (Through May 16)
Cast: Ted Deasy, Claire Brownell, Eric Hissom, Scott Parkinson
Director: Maria Aitken
Adapted by: Patrick Barlow
Original concept by: Simon Corble, Nobby Dimon
Based on the book by: John Buchan
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Set/costume designer: Peter McKintosh
Sound designer: Mic Pool
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