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Hitchcock's '39 Steps' puts four actors through their paces

  • Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson in Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps"
Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson in Alfred Hitchcock's… (Craig Schwartz )
May 30, 2010|By Tim Smith, The Baltimore Sun

Picture it: London, 1935. Richard Hannay is bored. Well, "tired of life, frankly." At 37, still "sound in wind and limb," he can't find anybody to pal around with, anything worth doing. Then, a flash of inspiration: a jaunt to the theater to take in "something mindless and trivial."

What a mistake to make. Instead of something mindless, Hannay discovers something lifeless; instead of trivial, tribulating.

So begins "The 39 Steps," a brilliantly constructed, exhilarating and just plain funny play breezing into Baltimore this week on the last stop of its national tour. The Tony Award-winning work, which uses only four actors to portray dozens of characters, is based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.

The London production that opened in 2006 is now the longest-running show in the West End. It's still doing well in New York, too; after a two-year Broadway run — without box office-kindling stars in the cast — it relocated recently to offf-Broadway. There have also been productions in more than a dozen countries.

What's all the fuss about? Stephen Gabis, the dialect coach who prepared several casts for "The 39 Steps," provides a neat answer: "It's a love letter to the theater and to Hitchcock," he says, "with a Monty Python edge and energy to it."

When Patrick Barlow was approached about adapting John Buchan's 1915 novel "The 39 Steps," he demurred.

"Really, the novel is not that exciting," Barrow says. "But I asked if I could adapt the film. I told them I'd do everything onstage you see in the film. The producer, who was a crazy Englishman like me, said, 'What a wonderful idea.' I hope Mr. Hitchcock is looking down smiling, and not turning over in his grave.' "

The film combines a good deal of humor with a suspense yarn that finds Hannay on a whirlwind ride through international intrigue, state secrets and murder. The unsuspecting hero travels from London to Scotland and back again in the course of the plot, encountering an assortment of bad guys (notably an evil professor) and a couple of women who are drawn to him, one way or another.

"I had a ball adapting it," Barlow says. "It's almost a perfect film, I'd say, a wonderful piece of film structure."

While retaining that structure, along with much of the original movie dialogue, Barlow did a great deal more than pay homage to the Hitchcock classic. He devised a vehicle that celebrates the good old-fashioned world of theater as well, conjuring up images of vintage traveling troupes.

"I love a very challenging concept," Barlow says. "I really liked the idea of having just four actors and a bare minimum of props. If I had had a cast of 20 and full sets, it would have been less interesting for me."

The actor portraying Hannay has it relatively easy; that's his only role, although it's no cakewalk. The sole female in the cast is called on to portray Annabella, Pamela and Margaret, the three women who become crucial components in Hannay's journey from innocent bystander to fugitive.

Dozens of other assignments — spies, policemen, henchmen, folks of both sexes — are divvied up between two male actors, identified in the script simply as Man #1 and Man #2. They must bounce from one character to the next; they take care of some scenery, too.

Part of the fun of "The 39 Steps" stems from the resulting farcical layer, and the tour de force element, with all the mental, vocal and physical versatility required to carry it off. Ultimately, the play celebrates the craft of acting and the inventiveness of staging.

"It is a crazy marathon," says Ted Deasy, who plays Hannay in the touring production. "It's absolutely nuts, and thrilling to do. I'm on stage the whole time. It's like playing a straight man for two hours."

Rushing in and out of the action as the two mega-multitaskers are Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson.

"It's a sprinting game for Eric and Scott," Deasy says, "sometimes playing three or four roles simultaneously. Claire [Brownell, as the three women] does the same thing — in heels. [Director] Maria Aitken makes it all look effortless, as Hitchcock did."

The reality, though, is anything by effortless.

"It's an exhausting show," says Hissom. "It's like an athletic feat. We're running, jumping and bending down, making contortions through most of the show. The really big challenge is vocally, the shifting of the voice, the age and even the gender of the character you play. You get dehydrated — we have lots of water bottles backstage."

The cast launched the national tour in San Diego 11 months ago. "It took five or six weeks to really adjust to what the show takes out of you," Brownell says. "So we're hitting Baltimore at a great point."

In addition to the physical energy required for "The 39 Steps," there must be at least 39 different accents flying around during a performance. Mastering and maintaining them only adds to the pressure for the all-American touring cast.

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