Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The 39 Steps


By Patrick Barlow, adapted from the Alfred Hitchcock film. Directed by Maria Aitken. The Roundabout Theatre Company at the Helen Hayes Theatre. (CLOSED)

Many critics were charmed and dazzled by this inventive British import, which turns Hitchcock's 1935 chase thriller into a meta-theatrical spoof enacted by just four actors. Though even those who like the show admit that it's little more than fluff, there's a reasonably strong chorus of disapproving dissent, ranging from mild dismay that such fluff is being purveyed by the nonprofit Roundabout to outright dismissal of such mindless and relatively tame escapism. Not to dismiss the dismissers, but their chorus could almost be: "No fluff, please, we're American." NOTE: Reviews are of the original production at the American Airlines Theatre; the cast has had some changes, although the much-praised Burton is still in it.

New Jersey Star-Ledger A
(Michael Sommers) More than a mere stage spoof based on the screenplay and earlier novel. Roundabout Theatre Company's production is entirely performed by four actors who morph into dozens of characters involved in this fast-moving saga of suspense. Swiftly changing outfits and accents, dragging bits of scenery on and off, they achieve split-second feats of transformation—and garner extra mirth—whenever their efforts go somewhat askew. Watching them dash around so madly is mighty amusing...As in the film, a few scenes go a mite flat, but director Maria Aitken stages this spoof so sharply that the laughter rarely lets up. Inventive designer Peter McKintosh's not-so-barren "bare stage" and 1930s wardrobe dress up the visuals immensely.

Variety A
(David Rooney) The central joke in this frenetic spoof is the utter unsuitability of the material—with its high-speed chases across moors, rivers, an elevated bridge and the roof of a moving train—for stage presentation. The dated conventions of '30s filmmaking, the outmoded acting styles, preposterous accents and the loopy dialogue played straight all combine with a tongue-in-cheek performance mode that blends mime, slapstick and Monty Python-esque drollery...The real key to its success, however, is that the thriller element is entirely secondary to the laughs milked from shoestring stagecraft that redefines the term low-tech.

New York Post A
(Clive Barnes) Inventively astonishing...A marvelous spoof of the movie, translating Hitchcock's thrills, spills and visuals into elementary stage effects—even the famous train chase over the top of The Flying Scotsman express, and the dangling hero's scene on Edinburgh's Forth Bridge. The play's creators have affectionately pushed Hitchcock's brilliance...into some riotous realm of satire, without losing its essentially Hitchcockian flavor.

The New York Times A
(Ben Brantley) Absurdly enjoyable, gleefully theatrical riff...This fast, frothy exercise in legerdemain is throwaway theater at its finest. And that’s no backhanded compliment. A perfect soufflĂ©, after all, requires a precise and confident chef...The appeal here is ultimately more to theater aficionados than to movie buffs, and you don’t need to have seen the movie to appreciate the accomplishment of the show. Ms. Aitken and company are using their cinematic template to celebrate the art of instant illusion-making that is theater. Much of the show’s pleasure comes from being in on the magician’s tricks even as, on some primitive level, you accept them.

The New Yorker A
A feast of theatrical artifice. Adapted by Patrick Barlow, who developed his droll narrative shorthand as the supremo of the British National Theatre of Brent (which produced a series of epics performed by just two actors), “The 39 Steps” won last year’s Olivier Award for best comedy. Hitchcock was attracted to the John Buchan novel from which the movie was adapted because of Buchan’s “understatement of highly dramatic ideas”; Barlow’s play succeeds by overstatement. Here, suspense is replaced by slapstick. In both the cinematic and the stage versions, there’s never a dull moment. The excellent cast is well directed by Maria Aitken.

New York A
(Boris Kachka) To what do we owe the sudden success of a low-tech farce in which four actors play dozens of roles and, using little more than trunks and ladders, re-create one of Hitchcock's most complicated (for its time) British thrillers? Perhaps it’s that The 39 Steps as rejiggered by trailblazing comic minimalist Patrick Barlow, which won an Olivier at the West End and transferred quickly to Broadway, is the anti-Disney performance. For anyone a tired of watching children's fluff blown out with multi-million-dollar pyrotechnics, this loving send-up of the 1935 spy exactly what you're looking for.

The Daily News A-
(Joe Dziemianowicz) A dizzy delight. This slight but ingenious spoof retells the classic 1935 spy movie using only four actors and a mix of mime, slapstick, sight gags, melodrama and, in one particularly amusing scene, puppets...It's great fun to watch classic Hitchcock scenes come alive through nothing more than simple props and theatrical magic. A high-speed chase aboard a whizzing train is brilliantly re-created with four crates, puffs of smoke, flashing lights and actors game for anything...If "The 39 Steps" makes a misstep, it's having an intermission. Once this fast-paced fun ride leaves the station, you don't want to get off.

USA Today A-
(Elysa Gardner) Call it the little comedy that could...An impeccably crafted trifle, a lot tastier than many of the richer confections that have turned up in commercial theater lately.

Backstage A-
(David Sheward) In Maria Aitken's joyfully creative production, an empty stage becomes a speeding train, a music hall full of menace, and the desolate Scottish moors. Through clever use of hats, chairs, coats, and window frames—and Kevin Adams' scene-setting lighting—Hitchcock's cinematic sleight of hand is given theatrical life and lovingly satirized...The real stars are Cliff Saunders, who resembles a melancholy bulldog, and large-eyed Arnie Burton...The evening sags when the action does not rely on Aitken's direction and the comedy derives principally from funny accents...Fortunately, these flaws make for only brief lulls on this hilarious climb up The 39 Steps.

Time Out NY B+
(David Cote) People are constantly escaping in The 39 Steps, a spoofy stage version of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller. Our hero, Richard Hannay (Edwards), evades killer spies, the police and a diabolical German professor in this noir adventure. Escape is also pretty much all this amusing diversion—in which four actors play several dozen characters to bravura comic effect—offers the average theatergoer: about 100 minutes of chuckleworthy theatrical silliness that, while never hilarious, is thoroughly clever...You can’t help wonder if the material would be funnier in a more intimate, scrappier version; then the laughs wouldn’t have to work so hard to escape the stuffy context.

Wall Street Journal B+
(Terry Teachout) A silly sendup of Hitchcock's witty 1935 film version of John Buchan's 1915 thriller. This piece of English toffee is performed by a hard-working cast of four, and much of the fun arises from the fact that two of the actors, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, play most of the parts, changing hats and hurling themselves around the stage with mad abandon. The spoofery, which runs to inch-thick accents, who's-on-first dialogue and nudge-nudge references to other Hitchcock films, is decidedly collegiate...but the slapstick is worthy of a silent movie and is absolutely guaranteed to divert.

Theatermania B+
(Brian Scott Lipton) More often induces smiles than real guffaws; but there are moments of sheer physical genius here that are cause for spontaneous applause, and precious few lapses into sophomoric humor or, worse yet, boredom...The show belongs to the lanky Burton and the rounder Saunders, whose versatility—and ability to changes clothes extremely quickly—is often astounding.

Theater News Online B
(Bill Stevenson) Fun, fast moving, and inventively directed by Maria Aitken. Although Patrick Barlow's stage adaptation is an affectionate parody of one of the first great films by the Master of Suspense, it's missing one key ingredient: suspense. Instead of mystery and romance, the emphasis is on physical comedy and running gags...The four hardworking actors do their part to make The 39 Steps a brisk, breezy entertainment. Just don't go to this high-concept send-up expecting Hitchcockian suspense.

The Record B
(Robert Feldberg) A tribute to the film in the form of a single, elaborately carried-out joke: The geographically sprawling, multicharacter adventure is presented by a cast of four using an odd-bits collection of props and scenery. The purpose and frequent pleasure of the show, which has been wittily directed by Maria Aitken, is the ingenuity with which the spoof is carried out. The evening is good-natured fun, even if it lacks the spark of zaniness that might have made for memorable comedy.

Associated Press B
(Michael Kuchwara) The 39 Steps leaves a lot to the imagination—which may be the best thing about this ferociously self-aware spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's cheeky 1935 cinematic thriller. The pace is relentless, giving a whole other meaning to this "man on the run" tale...It's not necessary to have seen the Hitchcock film to enjoy Patrick Barlow's stage version adapted not only from the movie but also from the novel by John Buchan. Yet it does add to the play's enjoyment to see how some of the movie's visually arresting moments are cleverly staged—even if the suspense is gone.

Newsday B-
(Linda Winer) An utterly pointless but physically and conceptually ingenious spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's equally foolish but stylish and dead-serious spy thriller from 1935. In fact, given the assignment and the material, the extended sketch is as clever as it knows how to be...Part SCTV, part screwball romantic comedy, with a little of Monty Python's demented silliness and a lot of expert physical comedy, meta-jokes about Hitchcock's greatest hits and even a wink at politicians' obsession with "change." Do we care? Not much.

Village Voice C+
(Michael Feingold) It's all piffle, and what it's doing on a nonprofit theater's roster might usefully raise some eyebrows, but it's harmlessly amusing piffle. As staged by Maria Aitken, Patrick Barlow's adaptation adds a little dimension to the spoofery with two concurrent lines of running gags: helpless-shrug jokes on what film can do that theater can't, and parallel jokes celebrating theater's ability to do more with less.

NY Press C
(Leonard Jacobs) No matter how much laughter one derives from The 39 Steps, there’s no denying it overflows with comic shtick we’ve seen countless times before; as adoring of Hitchcock as it is, the play nevertheless sits smack on the hokey continuum that begins with Charley’s Aunt and finishes with Arsenic and Old Lace. The 39 Steps was obviously filmed well before the emergence of noir, but there’s little new about the slang-using, sloe-eyed dame bewitching the unsuspecting gent, or about wisecracking minor characters cracking overly wise...So why is Roundabout producing this play? And does it really need to be on Broadway? I don’t know.

Bloomberg News D+
(Jeremy Gerard) An intermittently amusing sendup of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock spy thriller, The 39 Steps is too clever by half and twice as long as it ought to be...Perhaps the British haven't had enough movie spoofs in their diet. Perhaps they lack a Charles Busch or Charles Ludlam to show them how it's done...Agilely directed by Maria Aitken, the four actors all display style in abundance...Nevertheless, the show grows tedious. For all its ingenuity, it lacks sex, surprise, involvement.

Talkin' Broadway F+
(Matthew Murray) Spoof, spoof, spoof, all the way and in every direction, from under Capricorn to north by northwest...No doubt when the show first premiered in London, or when this production first bowed in Boston, audiences were able to detect a whimsical freshness about the creation of an expansive chase film onstage using the kinds of low-rent theatrical magic that’s kept The Fantasticks consistently charming for 45 years...Is this all funny? I laughed exactly once...An elaborate time-waster that has nothing on its mind, even within the limited realm of frivolous entertainment in which it so shamelessly operates.

The Journal News F
(Jacques Le Sourd) There's no question that this kind of thing, serious or not, is a producer's dream—cheap to put on—and many critics view it as something so much more pure than the overproduced, overpriced fare we get from, say, Disney on Broadway...Well, I say it's spinach and I say the hell with it.

New Jersey Star-Ledger A 13; Variety A 13; New York Post A 13; The New York Times A 13; The New Yorker A 13; New York A 13; The Daily News A- 12; USA Today A-
12; Backstage A- 12; Time Out NY B+ 11; Wall Street Journal B+ 11; Theatermania B+ 11; Theater News Online B 10; The Record B 10; Associated Press B 10; Newsday B- 9; Village Voice C+ 8; NY Press C 7; Bloomberg News D+ 5; Talkin' Broadway F+ 2; The Journal News F 1; TOTAL: 209/21=9.95 (B)

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