REVIEW: The 39 Steps (Broadway in Chicago)

More Monty Python than Alfred Hitchcock

Scott Parkinson, Eric Hissom and Ted Deasy - Photo by Craig Schwartz

Broadway in Chicago presents
The 39 Steps
adapted by Patrick Barlow
directed by Maria Aitken
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe  (map)
through May 30th  |  tickets: $20-$70 |  more info

by Barry Eitel

Let’s get one thing clear: even though Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps has the famed director’s name slapped on the poster, no one should enter the Bank of America Theatre expecting to be psychologically thrilled.

Claire Brownell and Ted Deasy - Photo by Craig SchwartzThe play is closer to Monty Python, featuring the madness of four actors portraying around 100 characters. The insanity has been much appreciated by critics and audiences around the world, carting away Tony and Olivier awards for the original West End and Broadway productions. All that success has earned the play a national  tour, with Chicago among the list of stops. Whacky, extremely energetic, and, much of the time, pretty stupid, Barlow’s creation exudes a wonderful sense of play that keeps us engaged and entertained. Not that there aren’t a few kinks with the touring production (especially the dragging first few scenes), but the madcap concept and over-the-top execution keeps us smirking.

The play follows the film’s plot pretty closely, but the tone is sharply different. We journey alongside Richard Hannay (Ted Deasy), an ordinary man pushed into international espionage. The 39 Steps milks all sorts of comedic gold from lampooning the “man-on-the-run” archetype. Cops are bumbling, the Germans talk really funny, and the action-packed final scene features plenty of popping guns. With four actors playing scores of random characters, the play also lays bare the relative ridiculousness of the original movie and novel.

Helmed by director Maria Aitken, the show features very little of the elaborate scenery we’ve come to expect from these Broadway imports. Instead, the committed cast paints the world on a sparsely-filled stage. Scenes fall on top of each other at breakneck pace, with some props doubling as completely different things to keep up the speed. A hotel fireplace becomes a car, for example. Aitken also slips in some interesting expressionistic touches, such as Hannay’s harrowing stroll on top of a moving train. A crucial part of the movie but sort of impossible to do in a theatre, the stage version does some interesting visual trickery to recreate the grand escape. Then there is the giant shadow-puppet show that brings to mind scenes from “North by Northwest”. You don’t really expect a whole lot of theatricality from a farce, so it’s a pleasant surprise when it turns up.

In order for the wheels of this show to really turn, though, it demands huge, perpetual amounts of energy from the actors. Fortunately, the cast here taps into a vast reservoir of goofiness. The best performances of the play come from the two men forced to play dozens of characters of all backgrounds, occupations, and genders. Scott Parkinson and Eric Hissom, who has a history with Chicago theatre, are the real heroes of the play. They are both masters of the lightning-fast quick change. Sometimes, they must portray two characters in the same scene, and, sometimes, they even have to have dialogue with themselves. I would posit that about three-quarters of the laughs emanate from the two men’s exasperated antics.

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Scott Parkinson and Eric Hissom - Photo by Craig Schwartz The Cast of "The 39 Steps" - photo by Craig Schwartz

Although less funny, pretty good work comes from Deasy and Claire Brownell, who plays all three of his love interests (the spy that tosses Hannay into this mess, a lonely Scottish housewife, and a “stranger on a train”). Neither is as bold as Parkinson or Hissom, but there is also less material for them to work with. Both rely on charming the audience, and both succeed for the most part.

The production is plagued by a lack of focus in some parts. This is especially true for the first few scenes, which aren’t nearly as laugh-packed as the rest of the play. Also, all of the performers are guilty of pushing certain bits too hard and too long, stalling the zipping energy of the piece.

It was a bold move to write up a spoof of Hitchcock’s film, not just because of the original’s acclaim, but because the movie is 75-years-old. However, Barlow’s risk paid off in laughs and awards. This is due to the ferocious energy of the cast and story, and the touring cast knows this well.

Rating: ★★★

The Cast of "The 39 Steps" - photo by Craig Schwartz