"The 39 Steps” has enjoyed healthy popularity in recent years. John Buchan’s novel, turned into a spy thriller with comic overtones in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie version, became a farce with tinges of urgency in the theater rendition Patrick Barlow introduced in London in 2006. That production continues to grace the West End and has spawned a veritable epidemic of “39 Steps” offerings in the regional theaters of the United States.
No local staging I’ve seen is like any other, and none matches the giddy balance between heft and hokum Maria Aitken achieved in the London production that came to Broadway.
Most regional productions exaggerate the farce. Directors seem almost challenged to be competitively silly, sometimes descending to the level of slapstick. They also vie to concoct the most references to Hitchcock movies not covered in Barlow’s script.
The overriding result is mountings of “The 39 Steps” tend to get shtickier and shtickier until all serious content, for example the intense spy mystery on which the story hinges, is overwhelmed by the comedy and gets tossed out of the rear window.
Not so Gus Kaikkonen’s curious staging at the Bristol Riverside Theater (BRT). Kaikkonen’s production is an anomaly. Its humor is more self-conscious than broad or funny, as if Kaikkonen heard that Barlow’s “39 Steps” is meant to be played as a comedy but doesn’t quite know where to place or how to stage the jokes. Sporadic laughs emerge, but most of the farcical bits seem to come from the “This might be funny” or “Let’s try this” school of foolery rather than from a keen sense of comically mining the material at hand. Little seems organic to Barlow’s play, and much seems forced. An example would be a Scottish sheriff taking eons to relay salient information because the actor playing him interrupts his narrative after every third word to blow on a steaming cup of tea.
The gambit is excruciatingly endless. The pauses come just when you want to hear what the sheriff has to say. They deaden the play rather than leavening it or making it fanciful. Kaikkonen’s production is not devoid of ably conceived comedy — it contains enough bits that work — but you can’t depend on jokes being smart or rollicking.
Straightforward action works better and provides some depth. Unlike legions of his colleagues, Kaikkonen seems more comfortable with the meatier portions of Buchan’s story, a mystery about German agents who intend to kite secrets about British fighter planes to the Fatherland from their hideout in Scotland. Richard Hannay, the focal figure of “The 39 Steps,” is the only one who knows of this plan but cannot convince Scotland Yard, the Scottish sheriff, the local constabulary, or his unwilling female travel companion of its critical military importance.
Kaikkonen takes his time and impresses the BRT audience with the vital immediacy of Hannay’s intelligence, conveyed to him by a woman counteragent he meets at a London music hall.
Kaikkonen is most successful when he bucks the trend Aitken began and concentrates on Hannay’s noble mission. His opening scene of Hannay in his apartment, most of the initial music hall sequence, and the scene in which the woman agent enlists Hannay work beautifully and are blessedly without much shtick.
Once Hannay begins an arduous road journey, matters get messier with chases, pratfalls, quick costume changes, comic walks, and other businesses not coming off as cleverly as one would anticipate. A necessary bit involving handcuffs becomes almost ludicrous when you witness how the characters are manacled.
Scenes at a Scottish hotel and Hannay’s meeting with the play’s villain work better.
Kaikkonen, and his audience, are luckiest with the Bristol cast. The director may not be adept at conceiving comic business, but Matt Leisy (Hannay), Karen Peakes (three women), Dan Hodge, and Adam Sowers (two clowns) are marvelous at playing most of what they’re given, and all energize and intensify the dramatic scenes.
Leisy easily conveys the competence, perseverance, and frustration of Hannay, who is impeded by the law when he is busy saving England from calamity. Peakes, in playing the counteragent, blends comedy and seriousness in a way that eludes Kaikkonen. As Pamela, a woman who becomes unwilling embroiled with Hannay, she hits every note perfectly. As a farm wife, she’s hilarious.
Hodge plays dozens of characters and finds individuality in each. He is luscious as an overly friendly innkeeper, spot-on as a music hall emcee, and often sets a comic tone Kaikkonen wastes. Sowers also entertains while assaying his legion of characters.
Bristol’s “The 39 Steps” amuses in spite of Kaikkonen’s lead foot in matters of farce. You certainly remain interested in whether Hannay succeeds in his mission.
The 39 Steps, Bristol Riverside Theater, 120 Radcliffe Street, Bristol, Pennsylvania. Wednesday and Thursday, 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 8 p.m., Wednesday and Saturday, 2 p.m., and Sunday, 3 p.m., through Sunday, October 26. $36 to $46. 215-785-0100 or www.brtstage.org.