Who could ask for a more endearing and comically imagined entertainment to lift us out of the January blahs than this theatrical replay of "Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps." A hit in London, this imaginatively conceived and exuberantly performed production should repeat its success here at the Roundabout Theater. It certainly is sporting of this British import to keep the master film director’s name in the title as it has been faithfully (with a grain of salt) adapted by Patrick Barlow from Hitchcock’s 1935 film starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carol, itself (as have two other film versions) based on John Buchan’s classic spy novel.
Maria Aitken (who repeats the assignment that earned the production an Oliver award) has embraced the play in mock minimalist fashion and with a virtually breathless pace. The result is a constant stream of chortles and faux chills. This romp relies on four actors to portray somewhere in the vicinity of 150 characters (although I declined to keep count). Well, that is except for Charles Edwards, who plays the ubiquitous and intrepid Richard Hannay, an English gentleman in tweeds, who, though typified by his ennui, becomes resourceful in the cause of his country, but mainly when pursued by the police through London and the Scotland moors.
Edwards, whose skillful projection of insouciance coupled with an unbridled patriotic verve supports the comedy’s irreverent intentions. That it doesn’t wear out its welcome as it aggressively seeks to spoof virtually every plot contrivance to ever engine a Hitchcockian spy thriller, is a major achievement. Getting in and out of scrapes and escaping from the clutches of the bad guys keeps Hannay hopping and the audience happily swept away by the ingenuity of the adaptation. The deft tongue-in-cheek performances always hit their intended mark as do Peter McKintosh’s scenic surprises, often just a puff of smoke, a couple of ladders, or a line-up of steamer trunks to effect a speeding train. Kevin Adams’s expert lighting offers just the right cover for all the slight-of-hand that goes on.
The two American actors, Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton, are not only up to leaping in and out of many role assignments and invoking various accents from spies to train conductors, police officers, and vaudeville entertainers, but they are also obliged to play on occasion an inanimate object such as a bridge, or a cliff, as well as serving as stage-hands. With all that they do, it’s a wonder they didn’t consider striking with the union.
Making her first appearance as the seductive, mysterious, foreign-accented woman in black, Annabella Schmidt, it is obvious that Jennifer Ferrin (who is making her Broadway debut) plunges head-first into the spirit of the production. Annabella’s unfortunate death in Hannay’s London flat clears the way for Ferrin to invest a lighter touch to her future scenes, as the helpful wife of a surly Scots farmer, and as Pamela, the cool, aloof blonde who is unconvinced of Hannay’s innocence.
Fans of the film will get an extra bang out of scenes they remember fondly, as well as some outrageously integrated references to "Vertigo," "The Man Who Knew Too Much," and even the aerial attack in "North by Northwest," helped by a little ingenious shadow puppetry. You should take whatever and how many steps necessary to find your way to this totally pleasurable entertainment. HHH
"Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps," Roundabout Theater Company at the American Airlines Theater, 227 West 42nd Street. $51.50 to $96.25. 212-719-1300.