It used to be that a play would run on Broadway, win a few Tony awards, and then go dark before the national touring company brought the fabled production to the grateful rabble out in the provinces. In recent years, this quaint timeline has been radically compressed, as seen in the recent production of The 39 Steps, which runs through January 2, 2010 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. This version has been touring since August, even though the play continues on Broadway until January 10, 2010 and the production in London's West End runs through February 13. I hear Mel Brooks is staging the musical version on Twitter next week...
With a cast of only four and a script that calls for more pantomime than props, the production is lean and tough, relying on the inventiveness of just three men and one woman to convey everything from train travel to automobile chases. But that's all still to come when we meet our hero, Richard Hannay (Ted Deasy), a privileged, English gentleman who complains, from the comfort of his padded easy chair, that he is bored, so much so that he's even willing to subject himself to an evening of utterly mindless and pointless theater. As the suggestion makes clear, we in the audience have done pretty much the same thing.
Based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock, The 39 Steps is a smart, funny, and fast-paced parody of the thriller genre. You won't have to concentrate too hard to hear all the references to other Hitchcock films and their titles -- there's even a shadow-puppet profile of the great director, a suitably silly substitute for Hitch's habit of making cameos in his own films.
Subtle The 39 Steps is not. The actors turn their heads in tight unison to look at, and then away from, each other; they click their heels to punctuate the action; and they repeatedly run in place, sometimes wildly flapping the hems of their coats to give the impression that they are battling terrific headwinds. The vaudevillian, Monty Pythonesque shtick is flogged again and again -- at one point, when Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson, who are listed in the program only as Man #1 and Man #2, find themselves trapped in a feedback loop of endless character changes, an impatient Hannay brays at them: "Get on with it!" Would that he could have had the same power to halt, or speed along, some of the scenes in the play's second act, which drags a bit in the middle compared to the first.
But the actors, including Claire Brownell as the various female leads (I especially liked her cartoon-Natasha accent as Annabella Schmidt), are fully committed to the zaniness. With little more than a few boxes to work with, they transport us to the roof of a moving train. A door is moved about the stage as one character leads another through the endless rooms of a mysterious manor. And Deasy makes a hilarious escape through a window by, well, just go see it for yourself.
The hijinks never let up. Little wonder, then, that the most common comment my companion and I heard on our way out of the Curran and back to the car was a variation of "Boy, those actors sure worked hard, didn't they?" Well, yeah, they did, and watching them perform their theatrical calisthenics was great fun. But making a buche du noel is a lot of work, too, and yet, at the end of the day, its still basically a big pile of empty calories.
The SHN production of The 39 Steps runs through January 2, 2010 at the Curran Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information, visit shnsf.com.