OREM — Richard Hannay was a typical London bachelor, until a temptress foisted herself upon him in his flat. Turned out she was a spy with a price on her head. So, when she gets whacked in Hannay’s apartment, he becomes a man on the run. To Scotland he goes to clear his name and uncover a spy ring called “The 39 Steps”.
The date is 1941, so you can guess who’s behind all this.
So begins Hale Center Theater Orem’s production of The 39 Steps, which shares the plot of the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name. But instead of playing it straight, the play makes fun of it the entire time, and, by extension, pokes fun at all spy thrillers that have come out since.
The 39 Steps is a farce where things happen “just ‘cuz.” Actors change characters mid-scene using costume pieces from inside their pockets. Several die in the most comic of fashions—sometimes more than once. The bad guy has a fake hand holding a cigar just for the heck of it. It’s that kind of show.
All of this humor is very British, so it’s no surprise that it was written by English playwright Patrick Barlow. It has the kind of comedy that works for both smart and stupid people. The dialogue is endlessly witty, and while there are plenty of pratfalls, the show is aware of its own absurdity.
That awareness makes its spoofs of thriller and action flicks ring true. Why is it that when we walk into a cinema we can accept that a man can run on top of a speeding train, or that police shooting at point-blank range will miss if their target is The Good Guy? The 39 Steps doesn’t have the answers to why we suspend our belief to such extremes, but it certainly finds the humor in it.
Blake Barlow (no relation to Patrick) looks great as Hannay, or The Man To Whom Stuff Keeps Happening. He sold the persecution well, has a fine British accent, and did a bang-up job with the physical humor (especially in the ladder scene). His delivery was a little rushed at first; and a bit more vanity would justify Hannay’s character, who can’t get enough compliments about his “attractive, thin pencil mustache.” But overall, Blake Barlow gave a commendable leading performance.
Kelly Hennessey wears many hats—er,wigs—in three roles. Of course each of them is helpless to resist the dashing anti-spy Hannay. If his passionate spit-swapping with every woman in the show smacks of James Bond, it’s because 007’s creator, Ian Fleming, was the world’s biggest fan of the source material. Hennessey’s most memorable scenes were when she and Barlow were handcuffed together, an old contrivance made deliriously funny in a Scottish bed and breakfast scene.
Carter Thompson was phenomenal as Clown 1. He was like a chameleon going from role to role. In particular, his brief turns as Hannay’s housekeeper and milkman come to mind (the latter had the night’s most convincing accent). Jake Suazo‘s performance as Clown 2 was also fun, fun, fun. He was clearly enjoying himself as the double-crossing bad guy. The two clowns worked well together the whole evening. They went from a pair of underwear salesmen to policemen, pilots, and, most memorably, the husband and wife owners of a Scottish inn.
With all these changing characters came changing accents, some of which muddled a few jokes. Many lines could have used a slower delivery with more diction. I also wished there was a beat added in a couple of places, like when the pious Scot prays to be kept from “lustful desires,” and when a fat guy got stuck going through, well, something (no spoilers here!).
While the round stage worked great for the several window scenes, it did cause some unavoidable visual issues. Though the director (Christopher Layton Clark) moved characters around to avoid back-of-the-head action, there’s only so much you can do. There were several times when I could not see any faces. I suspect the layout also contributed to my friends not “getting” what happened in the first theater scene. There were characters both onstage and in the audience, while the sound effects came from the opposite direction of where the actors were.
Now let’s take a moment to applaud the crew. They delivered a technical marvel of a show. Meagan M. Downey’s job as stage manager was a Herculean success, and the props (Linda Hale) were amazing. My favorite were the three-dimensional twin mountains, wheeled onstage in fog while the “clowns” dressed as pilots flew a model airplane around them. Straddling the tech and stage worlds was Alex King as The Foley Artist. Like a man on an old-timey radio program, he created sound effects onstage with the help of several occasionally unorthodox instruments. He convincingly impersonated a car engine by making sputtering noises into a piece of dryer tube, and gave impressive muted telephone voice-overs akin to the teacher in Charlie Brown.
In the couple of occasions where the endlessly changing props and costumes had a mishap, the actors covered it flawlessly and hilariously. When Suazo’s mustache fell off, he opined: “Seems like nothing’s going right for me today, is it?” The audience died laughing. This shows the advantage of casting an improviser—Suazo is a founding member of The Thrillionaires.
If you haven’t seen The 39 Steps, you must go. The script is packed with more funnies than a Sunday paper. The writing is exceptional; there’s a scream a second. I can’t imagine anything you could do in an evening that would make you laugh more than seeing this play for the first time. If you’re not too busy laughing, try to keep track of how many Hitchcock movie references are dropped in the script. (Content Advisory: In the film world, The 39 Steps would be rated PG for a little profanity and a pair of comic seduction scenes that made some older folks cover their faces.)