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Director, cast shine in ‘39 Steps’ at Albany Civic Theater

Director, cast shine in ‘39 Steps’ at Albany Civic Theater

Under the direction of theater veteran Michael C. Mensching, this production succeeds, as he has don

’The 39 Steps’

WHERE: Albany Civic Theater, 235 Second Ave., Albany

WHEN: Through Nov. 23

HOW MUCH: $15

MORE INFO: 518-462-1297 or www.albanycivic.org

High adventure, nail-biting chases and masters of disguise are all present in the dramatically satisfying spy thriller The 39 Steps.

Appearing first as a serial in Blackwood’s magazine in 1915, then as a book and later in several film and television adaptations, John Buchan’s introductory tale of the ever-resourceful and intelligent hero, Richard Hannay, and his struggle to solve a mystery and save England from destruction has memorably entertained espionage lovers for decades.

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film made the tale iconic. Often included on lists of the best of British film, Hitchcock took a different path than Buchan’s novel, adding a love interest, altering various plot points and changing what the steps in the title actually refer to. But that only offends if you are a purist. The mystery and intrigue remain perfectly intact.

Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation, currently being performed at Albany Civic Theater, advertises an equally fun trip, adding the savvy employ of shadow play, parody and slapstick. Barlow’s script is tight with satire and send-up, yet as a dramatically sustainable piece of theater, it is rather wan.

Like a comedy sketch that lingers too long, even clever stage play can grow tiresome and land heavy and forced when the pace slows. A successful production of this play needs to constantly one-up itself, alternating the breathless with hilarity, a tremendously difficult task.

Luckily, under the direction of theater veteran Michael C. Mensching, this production succeeds, as he has done a great job guiding his talented cast. The only stumbles in the evening happen when the pace starts to falter, allowing the flaws in Barlow’s script to become transparent. The pace will certainly improve as the run of play progresses — and the actors are clearly having a ball telling this tale.

Rarely does one have the pleasure of witnessing such a well-matched moment of actor to character to style conceit than that of Kevin X. McNamara, who portrays Hannay. Limber, quick and slipping a double entendre in with perfect finesse and dash, McNamara is great fun to watch as he fords the stream, darts the moors and dodges the bi-planes. His subtle breaks of the fourth wall are silly and wonderfully placed, allowing just the proper wink and nudge to keep the story bright.

Matching his stylish and textured performance is Jill Wanderman. Playing nearly all the female characters, Wanderman seamlessly slips from German femme fatale to Scottish fishwife. With ease and confidence, she never misses a moment to play a comic beat with just the right flip and flourish.

The two other actors in the play, Brian Sheldon and Bill Douglas, do yeoman’s work portraying the other characters on Hannay’s journey. From Douglas’ Wee Willie (a hoot) to Sheldon’s libidinous hotel mistress, each creates a memorable list of characters. Douglas is a new face, and Sheldon has never been better, managing to milk laughs without pushing to do so. Whether in tandem or solo, both produce polished and stellar work.

Strong and hearty applause also goes to the technical team. Mensching is credited as designing the deceptively simple stage setting, and it works well, nicely complimented by Beth Ruman’s film noir costumes and Deb Sklar’s lighting. Ric Bello’s expert sound design nearly steals the show with its brilliance and fun. Like an old time radio show, the sound cues comment on the story with just the right touch of humor.

If you have never seen Barlow’s adaptation of “The 39 Steps,” this well-done production should prove a perfect treat.

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