Climbing the 39 Steps

The question is, is The 39 Steps, which recently opened at the Ivoryton Playhouse, a play or an exercise designed by some acting school to test the mettle of its students? This farce by Patrick Barlow, a take-off on the novel by John Buchan and Alfred Hitchcock’s film, can appeal to audience members on different levels: as pure farce, as a display of acting skills, or merely as a “catch the allusion” game. Whether it satisfies as a play remains to be seen.

As directed by Erik Bloomquist, this story of the travails of Richard Hannay (Dan Fenaughty), caught up in a somewhat convoluted plot to steal information from Great Britain’s Air Ministry (the info Hitchcock’s “MacGuffin”), is played as broadly as possible, with a lot of pregnant pauses to make sure the audience “gets” the jokes (a man sitting behind me got them, and verbalized them before the actors delivered the punch lines). If you buy Bloomquist’s direction, which seems to consist of a “let it all hang out whenever possible” philosophy, then you will blithely sail along on this somewhat troubled sea.

Over the course of the evening, Fenaughty gets to play just one character, the somewhat supercilious Hannay, and he does it quite well, coming across (intentionally) as a 1930s actor in a B-Grade movie. The other cast members are called upon to create multiple characters, often with but slight changes of costume. Larissa Klinger is first seen as a German femme fatale who delights in glottal stops (think of someone with a severe case of catarrh trying to clear her throat). Next she’s a perky miss that Hannay comes across on a train to Scotland, and then she’s a Scottish farmer’s wife, and then back to Miss Perky for the remainder of the evening. As mentioned above, if you delight in watching an actor effectively create multiple roles (disregarding the catarrh), then Klinger’s performance will make you smile.

Then there are the two “Clowns,” played by Jonathan Brody and David Edwards, who create too many characters to be completely listed. To say that they wear multiple hats is an understatement, but there’s the aforementioned Scottish farmer, several policemen, railroad porters, hotel owners (husband and wife), a villain and his wife, and the focus of all this running around, Mr. Memory. It should be noted that Edwards gets to deliver the funniest line of the evening: “I thought there was only four of us.” You’ll understand if you see the play. If you are not geographically inclined, you might also want to look up the definition of “crotch,” which figures in a sight gag in the second act. If you’re not a Hitchcock aficionado, you might also want to check his filmography and search YouTube for the crop-dusting scene from North by Northwest (yes, Hitch does make a cameo appearance in the play).

What you make of all of this depends on your ability to suspend disbelief, your proclivity for re-runs of The Benny Hill Show, and your tolerance for characters cast in the vauldevillian mode. It also wouldn’t hurt to imbibe a glass or two of your favorite wine before attending, if only to prime the giggle part of your medulla oblongata.

The 39 Steps runs through June 19. For tickets or more information call 860-767-7318 or go to www.ivorytonplayhouse.org.

 

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