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Review: Adaptation of classic ‘39 Steps’ misses Hitchcock touch

Sunday, July 1, 2012
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— Patrick Barlow’s clever and mischievous stage adaptation of John Buchan’s novel “The 39 Steps” is usually presented (and titled) as “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.” But in the current production at the Theater Barn, Hitchcock’s credit seems to have vanished.

With the disappearance of Hitchcock’s credit, most of the inspiration of the ingenious send-up has evaporated, leaving a still funny evening, but woefully unmoored and unfocused.

Full of dark intrigue and poncey prose, Buchan’s venerable 1915 novel “The 39 Steps,” a slim tome, is a perfect read for a winter Sunday afternoon, allowing one to silently slip away into the fog and mystery of a classic story of suspense. Hitchcock stamped his sizable gift of sly wit and noir on this tale of man in a mousetrap, creating a memorable film that captured both romance and suspense in perfect balance.

‘The 39 Steps’

WHERE: Theater Barn, New Lebanon

WHEN: Through July 8

HOW MUCH: $24 to $22

MORE INFO: (518) 794-8989 or www.theaterbarn.com

In 2005, actor and playwright Barlow took Hitchcock’s gloss on the tale and burnished it golden, creating a theatrical mix of worship and whimsy of this man-on-the-run thriller.

Encountering a spy (with an easy virtue) who just has time to relay a few cryptic details of an international assassination plot before being expunged with the archetypal knife in the back, our hero, Richard Hannay (Steve Tribes), embarks on a perilous downhill journey to bust the evil conspirators whilst evading saboteurs and secret agents.

Romance comes from a chance meeting with a stranger on a train (Skylar Saltz), a woman with whom he ultimately falls in love. Eventually the true villains are revealed and our hero celebrates with champagne and his newfound love as the credits roll.

As simple as it sounds, this is a tremendously challenging piece for any theater company to tackle. The settings have to shift from train to plain with cinematic seamlessness; the cast of four play more than a dozen characters, some in such rapid succession they morph right before our eyes.

Tribes proves a solid Hannay, seasoning the proper “Keep Calm and Carry On” with just the right amount of panic. Saltz provides solid sass as the Scottish lass, and her indignant Pamela evokes the classic “Hitchcock blonde.” But this stage may be too small to contain the talents of Dominick Varney and Matt Malloy. Embodying all the other characters — bumbling constables, randy salesmen, not-so secret agents — Varney and Malloy are a true joy.

Director Phil Rice has done a masterful job in keeping all four actors in sync, animated and energetic. The moments of poke and parody — especially for the nonprofessional theater, with the late cues and misplaced set pieces — are perfectly laid out and well played. But while the comedy sketch aspects of the evening succeed, the storytelling stalls and sputters.

So much effort has been placed on getting the physical comedy just right (which it is in spades), the story is often treated as an intrusion. Many times we get lost. Where are we now? Who is this supposed to be? And what happened to Hitchcock’s inside humor?

The show is crafted as pastiche and is heavily reliant on the slap and pratfall, but it’s a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a classic story and storyteller, and both are lost too often in this production in favor of another silly walk or over-the-top accent.

A completely unnecessary intermission stops the action cold, coming more as an unpleasant and awkward surprise than a needed breath-catching opportunity. The show is only 85 minutes without a break. Is the show entertaining? Yes. Is this a production of “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” chock full of suspense, romance and noir? No. But perhaps you won’t miss it. There is popcorn after all.

 
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