Spoiler alert: Alfred Hitchcock makes a brief cameo in The 39 Steps. This is just one of the hundreds of details that make Charleston Stage’s production of the Broadway smash hit a must-see this season.
The play, written by Patrick Barlow, is adapted from both the 1935 Hitchcock film and the original 1915 novel by John Buchan, with emphasis on the film. Richard Hannay (played by Kyle Barnette) is our leading man, a man bored with the tedium of modern life who decides to find “something mindless and trivial.” “I know,” he says, “Let’s go to the theater!” What follows are two hours of hilarity and espionage, as Hannay is pulled into a world of German spies, dangerous goons, daring escapes, and of course, beautiful women.
Three incredible actors who change clothes, voices, and roles at blink-and-you-miss-it speed brilliantly shape his adventure. Beth Curley, Brian J. Porter, and George Younts round out the cast of four but are the very foundation of the entire proceedings. This is top-notch character acting at work, a virtual master class in comedic timing and physical work. Porter and Young particularly deserve recognition for their breathless shifting between six characters in as many seconds during the exceptional train sequence, the highlight of the first act.
What makes this scene, and others like it, a highlight is the way it takes theater conventions to hilarious heights. This is not a play that takes itself seriously, and it is the better for it. Marybeth Clark’s direction puts the framework of this play clearly on display for the audience, from watching the cast change costumes (wonderfully simple and effectively designed by Barbara Young), to climbing through handheld windows, to building and then driving a portable car. Everything is just so wonderfully raw, and filled with hysterical references to other Hitchcock films (loved North by Northwest, but The Birds fell a little flat).
What’s really so impressive about the comedy in this play is how tight and clean it all is. This is another testament to the skillful and attentive direction of Clark. There are no wasted seconds, and even pauses in the action are filled with jokes, sight gags, and overall polish. Clark, to be fair, is working with four incredibly talented actors. Barnette’s portrayal of Richard harkens back to the days of great film and television heroes, but with more in common with Hannah Barbara cartoons than Casablanca. With the exception of being slightly over-the-top in her opening scene (if that’s at all possible in this goofball play), Curley’s women are funny, varied, and each more charming than the last. Porter and Younts, who pull the heaviest character load, handle it with an ease and energy that almost cannot be believed.
The technical aspects of the show are mostly superb, but fall short in a few places. The scenic design by Stefanie Christensen is incredibly functional and shifts as easily as the actors on it, such as when traveling trunks become seats and then the very roof of the train. The lighting design by Julian Wiles can leave a little to be desired in places, and left a few faces in shadows here and there. Sound design by Amanda Wansa was solid, though the microphones in a few spots were oddly placed and poorly used.
The entire package is wonderfully entertaining. Mindless and pointless entertainment is what Hannay sets out to find at the beginning of the play, but there is nothing mindless in this sharply executed production. Step 1: Sit back, relax, and enjoy the show. The other 38 won’t even matter.