If you ask me…
- Tom Holehan
HITCHCOCK MADE HILARIOUS AT HARTFORD STAGE
So how about we take a classic old movie complete with its huge cast and multiple scenes and locations, and, for a laugh, cast it with just four people then adapt it to the stage? The laughs are clearly in evidence in Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”, the lively, tongue-in-cheek farce and recent Broadway hit that’s currently in residence at Hartford Stage. Hitch’s 1935 suspense hit has never been so much fun.
Adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan, “The 39 Steps” employs one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes: the innocent man drawn into a complex spy drama involving a sultry femme fatale, nefarious gunmen and a sweet young thing. Plenty of action ensues as a race across the English countryside includes a speeding locomotive and high flying crop duster. Through quick-change artistry, inventive shadow puppets, expert sound (Fitz Patton), precise lighting (Traci Klainer Polimeni) and a game cast of four, this breathless adventure rarely slows down…nor should it.
Unfortunately, under Maxwell Williams sometimes sluggish direction, there are sections of the comedy in Hartford that come to a crashing halt. It baffles because so much of “The 39 Steps” moves along with pace and purpose and that is exactly how this type of farce must be played. True, there are scenes when our hero and lady friend do stop and chat, but there still needs to be a forward momentum and menace evident underneath those discussions. Other scenes are also allowed to continue far past their comic potential. Mr. Maxwell needs to seriously address these sections further to fully exploit this very funny script.
That said, the marvelous quartet of actors gathered at Hartford Stage is simply without equal. Robert Eli, with his square shoulders and “pencil thin moustache”, is the ideal reluctant hero and straight man for all the zany characters around him. Christina Pumariega, in what appears to be a homage to the late, great Madelyn Kahn, is hilarious as the foreign femme fatale and equally good, later on, as the unwilling victim, handcuffed to our hero for a large portion of the play. Noble Shropshire and Steven French manage to steal scenes effortlessly playing a host of different characters switching clothes, accents and sexes with relative ease. Worthy successors to Charles Busch and Everett Quinton, silliness triumphs whenever these clowns are in action.
The play has loads of fun slyly recalling such Hitchcock classics as “Vertigo”, “North by Northwest” and “Psycho” (Mr. French is a hoot with a brief impersonation of Mrs. Norman Bates). David M. Barber’s scenic design is clever enough to reuse a plush leather chair on wheels in several scenes and construct a moving train with a few simple scaffolds. He also has redesigned the Hartford Stage proscenium with gorgeous facing, velvet curtains and cozy Victorian side boxes. Even Hitch, himself, is included in the design making a lively (and vocal) appearance. He seems to be having as much fun as the audience.
Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps” continues at Hartford Stage through May 1. For further information or ticket reservations call the theatre box office at: 860.527.5151 or visit: www.hartfordstage.org.
Tom Holehan is Co-chairman of the Connecticut Critics Circle and Artistic Director of Stratford’s Square One Theatre Company. He welcomes comments at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His reviews and other theatre information can be found on the Connecticut Critics Circle website: www.ctcritics.org.