Theater Reviews

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American Airlines Theatre, New York
Through March 23

Much like the early explorers who conquered Mount Everest, the creators of "The 39 Steps" seem to have concocted this stage adaptation of the classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film because it was there.

This four-performer theatrical vaudeville has little reason for being and feels all too similar to the many tongue-in-cheek film-to-stage adaptations that have preceded it. But the undeniable cleverness of its execution makes it a thoroughly entertaining if ultimately superfluous exercise.

Currently enjoying a hit run on London's West End, the show is unlikely to enjoy comparable success with American audiences, if only because the source material doesn't quite have the same familiarity on these shores.

Patrick Barlow's adaptation retains all of the crucial scenes from the film, rendered in often ingenious ways. The plot centers on the desperate efforts of suave Canadian Richard Hannay (Charles Edwards, the sole British transplant) to thwart a nefarious spy ring while simultaneously avoid being captured by the police who suspect him of the murder of a mysterious young woman who died in his apartment.

Thus, director Maria Aitken (aided by two "movement creators") provides ingenious, low-tech stage equivalents of such cinematic episodes as a chase above the cars of a moving train, a pursuit through the Scottish highlands and the efforts of the hero to hide amid group of parading bagpipers. The show even manages to incorporate an amusing version of the famous cameo by the rotund director himself.

While the production ultimately is unable to sustain its infectious giddiness for nearly two hours, the fast pacing and the hardworking efforts of the talented ensemble provide many fun moments along the way.

The dapper Edwards, clad in a stylish tweed suit and arching his eyebrows to great comic effect, delivers a wonderfully droll comic performance as the desperate hero. Jennifer Ferrin does terrific work in several female roles, including a thickly accented German spy and the icy blond heroine played so memorably by Madeleine Carroll in the film.

Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders play the remainder of the nearly three dozen other roles, transforming themselves via quick changes in consistently hilarious fashion.

Ultimately, the show is as much parody as homage, and like most such spoofs, it reaches a level of diminishing returns, especially because the source material lacks the pop-culture resonance that would provide the proceedings with more depth.

THE 39 STEPS
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company
in association with Bob Boyett, Harriet Newman Leve/Ron Nieynski, Stewart F. Lane/Bonnie Comley, Manocherian Golden Prods., Olympus Theatricals/Douglas Denoff, Marek J. Cantor/Pat Addiss and the Huntington Theatre Company and Edward Snape for Fiery Angel
Credits:
Adapted by: Patrick Barlow
Based on an original concept by: Simon Corble, Nobby Dimon
Director: Maria Aitken
Set/costume designer: Peter McKintosh
Lighting designer: Kevin Adams
Sound designer: Mic Pool
Cast:
Man No. 1: Cliff Saunders
Man No. 2: Arnie Burton
Richard Hannay: Charles Edwards
Annabella Schmidt/Pamela/Margaret: Jennifer Ferrin
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