Spellbound by “The 39 Steps”

By Brooks Appelbaum

Special to the Shoreline Times

You might feel some vague “Suspicion” as you approach the Ivoryton Playhouse production of “The 39 Steps,” which runs -- and I mean, at top speed -- through June 19th. The Playhouse might seems like too small a venue, considering this is a madcap theatrical spoof of Hitchcock’s 1935 film that takes us to innumerable locations in London and Scotland, and includes chase scenes by air, train, car, and foot, over hilly Scottish countryside. However, be assured that the theatrical magic onstage will leave you not only “Spellbound,” but also supremely merry. Erik Bloomquist’s deft direction and the remarkable talents of the four cast members, who play seemingly innumerable roles, make for an enjoyable evening indeed.

You need not have seen the Hitchcock film to have fun at “The 39 Steps,” which was adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow (both Hitchcock and Barlow worked from a novel by John Buchan). Thanks to Bloomquist, the plot moves along at a nice clip but without “Frenzy,” and anyway, the fun here doesn’t lie in the plot so much as in the screwball physical comedy and delicious filmic allusions -- to Hitchcock’s movies, certainly, and also to his brilliant twists on film noir, spy films, and romance.

You’ll understand immediately that the square-jawed Englishman, Richard Hannay (a brilliant Dan Fenaughty) has become enmeshed in the machinations of a “Secret Agent,” or, it seems, a whole group of dangerous spies, when a desperate foreign woman, Annabella (the terrific Larissa Klinger) seeks refuge in his flat and then is murdered there. She has left him with a map of a small town in Scotland and the description of a “Notorious” spy, along with the mysterious phrase, “The 39 steps” and the plea to expose this evil and save the free world.

Naturally, Hannay is more than happy to oblige, given that he is an upstanding Englishman, has nothing else in his lonely life to do, and is being pursued by Annabella’s murderer, though we know he is “The Wrong Man.” He runs from the police to Scotland, since he must solve the mystery of “the 39 steps” to clear his name beyond a “Shadow of a Doubt.” On the way, he meets beautiful Pamela (Klinger again). Pamela first believes him guilty and decides to “Dial M for Murder” more than once, so she, too, must be wooed to his side.

Chasing Hannay, and sometimes aiding him, is an assemblage of hilarious characters, all played by the brilliant David Edwards and the marvelous Jonathan Brody. Edwards, who directed Ivoryton’s superb “South Pacific” last year, has been seen on the Ivoryton stage in “La Cage Aux Folles,” and “Calendar Girls.” Broadway actor Brody is new to Ivoryton, and the Playhouse is most fortunate to have his prodigious talents here. Both of them play every one of their roles with the kind of glee, vigor, and conviction that convey to the audience their joy at being onstage, and infuse us with that joy as well.

It’s difficult to choose standout roles for Edwards and Brody, but if one had a gun to one’s head (which happens often in this production), one might say that Edwards is at his giddiest as the sweet, potty innkeeper, Mrs. McGarrigle, of the McGarrigle Hotel. Brody does a remarkable turn as a Scottish farmer who gives a dinner blessing that you won’t soon forget.

As far as the technical work on display, one might wish for a few small adjustments, such as a more posh gentleman’s chair for Hannay’s flat, the better to convey his character, and a coat of gold paint for a car’s steering wheel.

In the main, however, Daniel Nischan’s scenic design, especially for the entertainments at the London Palladium; Marcus Abbott’s lighting; Tate R. Burmeister’s sound; and Cully Long’s wonderful costumes serve as fine support for the actors’ and the director’s tour de force.

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