Even if you have previously succumbed to the comical bits and pieces that fill up “The 39 Steps,” the production now at the George Street Playhouse should convince you as it did me that its endearing charms can actually be improved upon. As directed with unerring sturm und style by Mark Shanahan, this cleverly imagined and ingeniously executed spoof of one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest and most adored films is a laugh-inducing joy from one hilariously suspenseful scene to the next. And the four-person cast headed by Howard McGillin couldn’t be more in step to make the most of their many and mostly manic opportunities in this delightful homage to the master of suspense.
A huge hit in London before it crossed the ocean to become just as big a hit on Broadway in 2008, it is a surprisingly faithful (with a few digressions) if also farcical adaptation by Patrick Barlow of the director’s 1935 film starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carol, itself (as have two other film versions) based on John Buchan’s classic 1914 spy novel.
Shanahan, who has previously directed this lark at a number of regional theaters, has not only fully embraced the play’s prescribed mock minimalist style but also given McGillin the opportunity to be more than a cipher as the otherwise ubiquitous and intrepid Richard Hannay. Amidst the breathless pace, the chortles, and faux chills, McGillin steps with panache beyond the role’s rather one-dimensional demands. As such, he is quite, and perhaps unexpectedly, disarming as an English gentleman in tweeds with “a very attractive pencil mustache.”
Though typified by a casual ennui, McGillin skillfully projects Hannay’s resourceful insouciance as well as his unbridled patriotic verve in the cause of his country, but mainly when (hold your breath) pursued by the police through London and over the Scotland moors.
In addition to McGillin, this romp relies on three other actors to portray a multitude of characters (although I was not inclined to keep count). Despite this comedy’s deluge of irreverent intentions, it doesn’t wear out its welcome as it aggressively seeks to spoof virtually every plot contrivance to ever engine a Hitchcockian spy thriller. This 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 Yoshi Tanokura’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. Best of all, I loved the grandly ornate gilt-edged theater proscenium with which Tanokura has framed the play. Rui Rita’s lighting offers just the right cover for all the sleight-of-hand that goes on.
The two “clowns” in brilliant support — Mark Price and Michael Thomas Holmes — 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 inanimate objects, as well as serving as stage-hands.
Making her first appearance as the seductive, mysterious, foreign-accented woman in black Annabella Schmidt, Stacie Morgain Lewis plunges directly into the spirit (shades of Marlene Dietrich) of the production. Annabella’s unfortunate death in Hannay’s London flat clears the way for Lewis to invest a lighter touch to her future scenes, as the helpful wife of a surly Scot’s 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 Birds,” even the aerial attack in “North by Northwest,” helped by a little ingenious shadow puppetry. Don’t count them — just take as many steps as necessary to get to the George Street Playhouse.
‘The 39 Steps,’ George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Through Sunday, May 20. For tickets ($26.50 to $57.40) call 732-246-7717. www.gsponline.com