Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Theater Review - The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan from the movie of Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by J.R. Sullivan
Where:  Thompson Theater at the Roselle Center for the Arts
(University of Delaware, Newark, DE)
When:  Sunday, April 26, 2pm
Photos by The REP

Having previously seen The 39 Steps on Broadway several years ago and walking away with thoughts of "That was okay, but nothing special," I must admit that my expectations were somewhat muted upon hearing that the University of Delaware's Resident Ensemble Players were tackling this madcap comedic play featuring only four actors playing a multitude of roles.  That said, I also recognized that this type of zany comedy is particularly in the wheelhouse of many members of the troupe so the possibility of a nice surprise was definitely in the cards -- and the REP delivered with their best play of the season, saving the best for last by far.

The 39 Steps isn't a particularly well-known Alfred Hitchcock picture and when I reviewed it as part of my Hitchcock Fest a few years ago, it landed in the middle of his cinematic oeuvre for me.  Much like the film (and the disappointing book upon which it is based), the play details the story of thirty-seven year-old bachelor Richard Hannay (played here by REP member Michael Gotch) who is attending a variety show of sorts when a woman dressed in black fires off a gun and creates a bit of chaos.  Upon leaving the show, Richard meets up with the woman named Annabella Schmidt (a role tackled by REP member Elizabeth Heflin) who informs him that she is on the run from spies who will stop at nothing to ruin Britain.  After obliging to Annabella's request for her to spend the night in his flat, Richard wakes up the next morning to find Annabella murdered, forcing him to go on the run attempting to evade the police while trying to figure out who framed him for murder.

Doesn't sound like a laugh riot, huh?  In the mind of playwright Patrick Barlow, however, the comedy comes fast and furious with a multitude of Hitchcockian movie references thrown in for the fanatics like me.  Part of the fun stems from the fact that although there are upwards of fifty characters in the play, there are only four actors to portray all the roles.  Michael Gotch as the wrongly accused man is our only constant throughout the whole affair and his spot-on 1930s charming persona is a whimsical and hilarious treat.  By his side is the aforementioned Elizabeth Heflin who takes on three female roles, all of which are perhaps the most underwritten in the play.  She's sort of the straight man to all the chaos going on around her and it's a bit unfortunate that most of her one-liners fall a bit flat.
The bulk of the roles in The 39 Steps, however, are played by REP members Mic Matarrese and Lee Ernst whose time on stage seems to never cease as they move from one character to the next with incredibly quick costume changes and varied English accents.  Whether it be vaudevillian actors, a cleaning woman, a Nazi spy, a newspaper boy, or nearly anything else you could imagine, these two tackled an unenviable task with ease, gusto, and humor.

Director J.R. Sullivan makes the most of the intimate Thompson Theater and I have to think that's why this play worked better for me in this setting than it did on the Broadway stage.  The closeness to the actors and their funny actions made the experience much more enjoyable than when I saw this in NYC twenty-five rows back from the expansive stage at the Cort Theater.  Much like the REP's take on Noises Off a few seasons ago (still the most enjoyable REP production I've seen), comedic timing is everything in a play like this and Sullivan obviously worked with his cast of four actors to wring out all the yuks they could in a play like this.

Kudos also to costume designer Martha Haley whose costumes easily take us back to the 1930s and scenic designer Bill Clarke who cleverly utilizes a bevy of everyday items to take the shape of everything from a train to a plane to an automobile.  The clever use of musical scores from Hitchcock films adds a punch to the production as well as being a nice homage to the director's films.

This was truly an enjoyable way to end the REP's somewhat disappointing 2014-15 season.  Both comedies they're tackling here at the end (All in the Timing is also running at the moment and definitely worth checking out) showcase the actors in the troupe and the behind-the-scenes talent to great effect.  I'll be eagerly looking forward to next season's announcement after ending on such a high note!

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