A fortnight ago, as I walked out of the Princeton Summer Theater, I was thinking: “that was the best production I’ve seen here in at least 10 years.” Way back to “Arcadia.”
I’m glad I didn’t write that in my review because here it is only two weeks later and there is another production that is even more impressive. “The 39 Steps” was a novel (originally written in 1915) by John Buchan in England that everyone in my age generation used to cut his or her reading teeth on. You may have caught up with it when, in 1935, Alfred Hitchcock turned it into a terrific adventure movie.
Well, now, all these years later, it has been turned into a spoof (by writer Patrick Barlow) using both the novel and the film, and Princeton Summer Theater has itself its best show in — well — maybe 10 years. A cast of four (yes, just four) plays the 29 roles with extraordinary skill. And director Jeff Kuperman does all the incredible choreography as well as guide the cast through all the exciting moments. Meanwhile an unseen backstage crew handles dozens and dozens of sound and light cues flawlessly.
I’m not sure I can really sum up the plot, but a recent press release attempts it: When the beautiful and mysterious Annabella Schmidt turns up dead in his apartment (sorry, ‘flat,’ it’s England.) Richard Hannay goes on the lam to prove his innocence. In the process he must find the man with the missing finger, romance a beautiful blonde — and solve a mystery of magnificent proportions.”
Evan Thompson plays Hannay, the hero, as very British, well-mannered, well-schooled, stiff-upper-lips and all that, but with a delicious sense of adventure — just as Buchan wrote him. Holly Linneman plays the gorgeous Annabella, plus the blonde Hannay is called upon to romance, and Margaret, a stunning Scottish redhead. Brad Wilson and Pat Rounds play what are simply called Clowns #1 and #2 — with an incredible variety of hats, jackets, and accents, both on and off the stage at breath-exhausting pace.
And if you ever wondered just what was meant by “physical comedy,” watch what director Kuperman has created for the Clowns. He pays tribute to the pair in a program note for “danger, perseverance, and trust.” It is far more than high-speed, side-splitting fun through spyville, it is theater at its most expressive. And, while we are at it, let’s not forget many unseen hands backstage creating sound and light cues by the dozens.
The 39 Steps, Princeton Summer Theater, Hamilton-Murray Theater, Princeton University.Thursday through Saturday, July 25 through 27, 8 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, July 26 and 28, 2 p.m. www.SmartTix.com or 877-238-5596.