(Laguna Beach, CA) October, 2012 – Alfred Hitchcock was the cinematic master of the thriller, whose protagonists were oftentimes mistaken for committing dastardly crimes. Famous examples include Gregory Peck’s amnesiac Ballantyne in Spellbound, Farley Granger’s tennis player Guy Haines in Strangers on a Train, Jimmy Stewart’s easily “off-balanced” detective in Vertigo, and Cary Grant in both To Catch a Thief and North By Northwest.
And then we have poor Richard Hannay, who is caught in the middle of murder, mayhem and a mysterious spy ring in The 39 Steps, one of Hitchcock’s earlier classics during the mid 1930s. Although there were some romantic, humorous moments between the film’s two stars (Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll), it was not a farcical comedy. But what is brilliant about the story’s source material (from both the film and the novel it is based on) is its themes and characters have the potential of being re-envisioned as a “commedia dell’arte”: a form of theater characterized by types. Fortunately, playwright Patrick Barlow captured the essence and potential of the story, resulting in a Tony award-winning comedy. At the Laguna Playhouse, this hilarious adaptation of a Hitchcock classic brings a wonderful sense of slapstick silliness.
London everyman Richard Hannay (Dan Fenaughty) is bored. He wants more out of life, some excitement to give him purpose. He decides to go to the theatre. While watching a show, he encounters a femme fatale (Larissa Klinger, one of three roles she portrays in Steps) who warns him of a spy ring and something called “The 39 Steps.” But before she reveals the information about the ring, she is murdered and Hannay is blamed for the crime. And so, this hapless protagonist takes the first step on a journey of intrigue, encountering a rogue of fascinating and disturbing characters, all portrayed by Tobias Shaw and Nicholas Wilder.
Barlow’s frenetic dialogue perfectly captures the flavor and nostalgia of the 1930s period, as well as providing a “wink, wink” salute to other Hitchcock films; be sure to watch for Alfred’s “little cameo.” Kevin Bigger’s direction is flawless and fluidic in terms of the physical comedy that occurs on the stage, as well as the technical cues with Jeremy Rolla’s noirish lighting scheme and Mic Pool’s sound design. Peter McKintosh’s minimalistic set fits the satirical mood of the production; to give any specific details would spoil the clever surprises that occur during the show.
But it is the phenomenal acting from the four performers that capture the audience’s hearts from beginning to end. Fenaughty is the only performer in the troupe that portrays one character, but that does not necessarily mean that his is the easiest job. His Hannay must win over the audience’s sympathy, to capture their attention and take them on the ride, and to stir their hopes that this poor hero will win in the end. And Fenaughty succeeds with flying colors, combining sympathy and class. His romantic chemistry with Klinger and all three of her incarnations is perfectly magical. Klinger’s transformations from femme fatale Annabella to innocent farm girl Margaret to endearing heroine Pamela are truly impressive and reminiscent of key leading ladies from the Mel Brooks films. Annabella looks and sounds like a young Cloris Leachman. Margaret? Terri Garr. And Klinger’s Pamela is like watching a sultry Madeline Kahn. Klinger’s ability to generate three different characters is a testament to her craft. As far as Shaw and Wilder are concerned, their official character names are “Clowns 1 and 2,” who are significant character types in commedia dell’arte: they portray every other character (and even inanimate objects) throughout the entire play at break-neck speeds, approximately 30 for each actor. Their versatility is incredible to behold. Tobias Shaw usually portrays the manic male characters, especially the antagonist Professor Jordan. Shaw looks very much like Canadian character actor Stephen HcHattie hyped up on caffeine and amphetamines. And Nicholas Wilder’s portrayals, especially of female characters, are very much reminiscent of Monty Python’s Eric Idle. Their comedic timing is impeccable and they fit with their co-stars wonderfully. Superior acting, meticulous direction, and sharp dialogue. These ingredients compose an entertaining farcical comedy called The 39 Steps.
The 39 Steps opened September 25 and runs to October 21, 2012
606 Laguna Canyon Road
Laguna Beach, CA. 92651
Photos by Ken Jacques