Opening Nights: The 39 Steps

This touring recreation of the recent Broadway version of Hitchcock's 1935 film (based on John Buchan's 1914 book) goes to endearingly preposterous lengths to prevent the constraints of live action from hemming in the oft-reincarnated spy romp. The focus is on the art and artifice of storytelling, and the laughs and suspense are of the "Can they pull this off?" variety, rather than concern for the fates of the dozens of characters, all played by four actors.A lightning barrage of strobe lights ushers us into the salon of handsome, lonely bachelor Richard Hannay (Ted Deasy), a Canadian layabout in London whose opening monologue laments the loss of his drinking chums to marriage and other outlandish choices. Awash in self-pity, he decides to haul his sorry bum to "something mindless and pointless. I know! The Theatre!" There he meets raven-haired Annabella, the first of three vixens all played by Claire Brownell in differentiating wigs. Annabella's untimely and comical end at Hannay's apartment catapults him into a gonzo goose chase to prevent some secret documents from being secreted out of the country by a clownish German villain. The trumped-up impediments include sheep crossings, noisome agents in trench coats, and laughable shadow-puppet plane strafings. Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson impersonate a throbbing lunatic parade of supporting characters. If there's a precision slalom competition for quick, sharp caricature acting, this nimble team would take high marks.Packing maximum story into minimum time, the narrative techniques here shamelessly steal the show. When a door is opened to a howling, gale-force wind, the actors flutter their clothes and shake the very flesh on their faces to illustrate it. A serial joke develops as characters mention props (like fog or a car) before they materialize—poof!—onstage. Other tricks include having a single actor simultaneously play two different characters using the two sides of his profile. The sound design, lighting, and choreography spectacularly outstrip the story value, and, like cinema's earliest audiences, I was taken in by the sleights.

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