'The 39 Steps' Brings Hitchcockian Absurdity to Coronado Playhouse
History repeats itself as hit-and-miss farce
The cast of The 39 Steps: Russell Clements, Erica Marie Weisz, Jacob Sampson, and Michael Lundy. | Photo: Ken Jacques
Apparently beloved in Britain, The 39 Steps is a farcical retelling of Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller about an everyman who’s forced on the lam, pursued by bobbies and spies alike, after finding a mysterious woman murdered in his flat. Parodies aren’t expected to stand on their own as compelling works of art, but we generally expect them to take some kind of stance on the original, whether in homage or critique. This script seems to do neither, more interested in broad, cheap gags than sending up genre conventions, and in between some brilliantly silly moments, the scattered comic timing of Coronado Playhouse’s production does it few favors.
The primary draw of the show is its minimal cast: By way of nonstop costume and accent changes, two “clowns” (Russell Clements and Jacob Sampson) portray all 135 incidental characters that our protagonist, Richard Hannay (Michael Lundy), encounters on his fugitive odyssey. When director Desha Crownover uses this as the point of the humor, it works well: A sequence requiring a half-dozen passersby is accomplished through an expertly choreographed flurry of hats, scarves, twirling in place, and self-interruption that earns mid-scene applause. Likewise, by the time an eerie image of two men in silent stakeout beneath a lone streetlight is revisited a third time, one of them has been redeployed elsewhere onstage as a milkman, so his half of the stalkers is now reduced to a coat on a hanger. Less resonant is humor-by-recognition that doesn’t trust the audience: Hannay fleeing a low-flying plane elicits chuckles from our collective cultural highlight-reel, but just to make sure everyone got it, the pilots cry out “There he is! North by northwest!” a moment later.
Clements has a jester’s manic energy in spades, and though many of the characters he inhabits share the same bluster and volume, when given the chance to reveal the main villain, he channels Dr. Strangelove to ecstatic, cackling heights. Sampson differentiates his Scots to greater effect, becoming an irascible farmer one moment and a placid, braindead hotelier the next. Out of the foursome, he’s also the most capable at his accents, quickly shifting between several regional brogues with confidence. Lundy draws from a deep well of snappy reactions in his straight-man role, keeping pace and maintaining a dignified presence throughout the mayhem—no easy task.
Because the 2005 script is uninterested in critiquing its 1930s sexual politics, our lone female actor, Erica Marie Weisz, is given only three characters and not much to work with. (There are a couple more women among the scores of incidentals, but if she got to play them, too, we’d miss that inexhaustible goldmine of British humor: men in drag speaking falsetto.) She initially captivates as a femme fatale in an exquisitely tailored dress, but then spends most of her stage time being dragged around by Hannay, handcuffed and in pain. The “love story” of the play is familiar male wish fulfillment, in which a morsel of pity and a heaping of forced proximity naturally create romance, and kissing a random stranger against her will is considered a meet-cute.
Lundy, Clements, Sampson, and Weisz simulate a speeding train. | Photo: Photo: Ken Jacques
The most impressive moments and biggest laughs come from creative appropriation of the set: To evoke a speeding train, Hannay and a policeman stand atop steamer trunks and flap their own coats in the “wind.” An empty picture frame serves as a window that everyone “jumps through” by passing it over their own bodies like a hula hoop. However, there’s a fine distinction between playing with the conventions of the medium and breaking the fourth wall, and the latter is a tool employed just a bit too often here. Starting about midway through the second act, it seems as if the characters “wink” at the audience in every scene, constantly acknowledging that none of this is real and, by extension, the plot doesn’t matter. But even if the plot serves only to string together jokes, the audience needs to feel like the characters, at least, are invested in it. We laugh at Daffy Duck because he’s honestly trying to make a straightforward cartoon, and doesn’t realize that being flummoxed by his cracked reality is funnier.
Accordingly, despite some punchlines that are hit too often and some beats that are held a few seconds longer than necessary, when this production feels like a limited cast doing their best to put on an earnest ensemble piece while improvising around a sparse set, it’s a fun, creative romp—but mugging, pratfalls, and silly accents aren’t enough to sustain two hours by themselves; and the experience would greatly benefit from a tighter pace and a little more conviction in the mystery plot ostensibly driving the whole thing.
The 39 Steps
March 24–April 24, 2017