This four-person comedy tips a hat to Alfred Hitchcock
Good evening, ladies and gentlemen.
As you read this, Patrick Barlow’s Tony Award-winning “Alfred Hitchcock’s 'The 39 Steps'" is relentlessly advancing on the Players stage. It’s a goofy, slapstick adaptation of Hitchcock’s 1935 movie, which in turn was an adaptation of John Buchan’s 1915 novel.
The plot: An innocent man is framed for murder. The poor guy flees and drags an icy blonde with him against her will. A nest of foreign spies is responsible, and they’re doing their best to kill him. He’s doing his best to clear his name—and stop them before they sneak a vital secret out of the country. The clock, of course, is ticking. And, yes, that sounds an awful lot like “North by Northwest.” Hitch, like any great chef, had his favorite recipes.
But the plot isn’t really the point. It’s an excuse for a whirlwind of rapid costume changes. A quartet of actors play all the parts. The unflappable Jared Walker is the innocent man, Richard Hannay—and that’s his only role. The other three actors have multiple duties—and sometimes play several characters at once. Melissa Ingrisano portrays the sultry foreign agent, the frosty blonde, and a sexually frustrated Scottish housewife. Jeffrey Kin and Walter Price play everybody else, from Scottish innkeepers to musical hall performers to the master spy in charge. In the process, the play shoehorns in references to Hitchcock’s films, from “Strangers on a Train” to “Psycho.” Where Hitchcock’s choreographed suspense sequences showed the mind of a control freak, the play’s special effects are hilariously slapdash. Actors mimic a chase on the roof of a train by flapping their clothes in a pretend breeze. Fog rolls in during another chase sequence in Scotland. Obvious dry ice—which only appears after one actor mentions how foggy it is. Two crop dusters attack Hannay in a spoof of the “North by Northwest.” These planes are pantomime shadows projected on a screen. (Badly.) Later on, we see the silhouette of the Loch Ness Monster.
Kyle E. Turoff directs this fast-paced parody with flawless comic timing. Four great actors make this silliness work. The credits list the quick-changing Kin and Price as Clown 1 and Clown 2. Their contrasting styles of physical comedy create a nice resonance. Kin’s characters vibrate with nervous energy; Price’s people tend to the ponderously pretentious. (He’s particularly funny as the Mr. Memory vaudeville performer—who whoops and jibbers before going into a mnemonic trance.) Walker’s Hannay is the perfect upper class twit who seems to think the whole mad affair is a lark. He’s clueless, but dashing, at least according to a BBC news announcer. (This announcer periodically informs us how dashing Hannay on news bulletins throughout the chase.) Ingrisano’s three caricature/characters are all distinct personalities—and all distinctly silly.
Hitchcock, of course, is the unseen personality behind this exercise in choreographed silliness. You needn’t know Hitchcock’s movies to get a kick out of this show. But it helps. “39 Steps” is both a love letter to Hitchcock and a pie in the master’s face. Mostly pie, to be sure. But it’s very good pie. And quite full of laughs, if you'll pardon the awkward metaphor.
IF YOU GO
“39 Steps” runs through Oct. 11, at Players Theatre, 838 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota. For more information, call 365-2494 or visit theplayers.org.