The 39 Steps - Gloucester Stage Company

The 39 Steps - Gloucester Stage Company

Photo credit: Jason Grow. Pictured: Amanda Collins and Lewis D. Wheeler

Photo credit: Jason Grow. Pictured: Amanda Collins and Lewis D. Wheeler

The 39 Steps – Gloucester Stage Company

Review by James Wilkinson

The 39 Steps is presented by Gloucester Stage Company. Written by Patrick Barlow. Directed by Robert Walsh. Assist. Director: Madison Cook-Hines. Scenic Design: Jenna McFarlen Lord. Lighting Design: Russ Swift. Costume Design: Miranda Kau Giurleo. Sound Design: David Wilson. Props Design: Emme Shaw.

I have an unabashed love for the films of Alfred Hitchcock. It runs so deep that sitting five feet from where I’m typing this review is a pile of DVDs of just about every film he ever made.  I won’t go into all of the reasons why (we’ll be here all day if I do), but I’d like to think that my passionate fandom makes me the ideal audience member for Gloucester Stage Company’s production of The 39 Steps. The play by Patrick Barlow is a stage adaptation of the classic 1935 film and also holds the distinction of being one of only two or three Hitchcock pictures that I’ve never seen. That strikes me as remarkable considering the high regard that film buffs hold the movie in. How exactly has this one slipped past me for all these years? I considered watching the film as research before going to Gloucester Stage’s production, then held off. The movie’s the movie (and I’ll get to it one of these days), right now I’m more concerned with what’s happening on stage.

I actually think that the idea of translating a Hitchcock film to stage presents an intriguing challenge. It’s never going to truly be like the movie. So much of what makes Hitchcock’s work interesting is how he uses the camera and edits together his shots, two tools that are unavailable on stage. When you strip away those elements, what do you have left? How do you turn a cinematic vision (and one as idiosyncratic as Hitchcock’s) and translate it into a theatrical language? Again, it’s an intriguing challenge and one that Gloucester Stage’s production certainly attacks with a great deal of gusto. But despite the enthusiasm that the creative team clearly has for the job, I don’t think that the production quite hits the mark in giving the audience a fully satisfying theatrical experience.

Barlow’s answer to the question of adaptation is to ramp up the absurdity of the storyline and turn it into something more akin to a farce than a thriller. God knows that he didn’t have to do much to get there. English bachelor, Richard Hannay (Lewis D. Wheeler) is enjoying a night at the theater in ‘30’s London, when he meets a mysterious German woman (Amanda Collins) who speaks cryptically of The 39 Steps. Who or what are the 39 steps? That’s the story’s MacGuffin. (What’s a MacGuffin? It’s an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands. [and if you don’t get that reference, Google it]). The next morning, when Richard awakes, the woman has been murdered and the authorities are after him. He escapes, barely, and heads off in a cross-country chase jam-packed with so many twists, turns and developments that even Raymond Chandler would have trouble keeping up with what was going on.

The plot is absolutely ridiculous, but I’d argue that’s part of the point (and the fun). This is a production that looks to keep you engaged by continually curveballs at you and keeping them coming at a breakneck pace, not only in plot, but in production elements. The bare stage the greets the audience as they walk in is somewhat misleading. As our protagonist is pursued around the entirety of the United Kingdom, a barrage of wheeled set pieces zip onstage to set the scene then disappear just as quickly. The many locations and characters are suggested with the bare minimum. A trio of steamer trunks become the compartments on a train. A couple of ladders become the cliffs that our hero tumbles down. Only four actors (Paul Melendy and Gabriel Kuttner join Wheeler and Collins), portray all of the characters, often bouncing between multiple personalities within the same scene and are aided by an on-stage Foley Artist (Malachi Rosen) supplying sound effects.

The problem for me is that after all while, the production begins to feel like a lot of noise without enough substance to back it up. When I say “substance” I don’t mean that the play suffers for a lack of heavy social themes. Hitchcock’s original film was meant as an entertainment and there’s no reason why we should deny ourselves that kind of artistic pleasure just because we’ve stepped into a theater. But the language in Barlow’s script isn’t particularly funny on its own and it feels as though director Robert Walsh is being forced into finding ways to make up for the lack. Take a moment of acting gymnastics in an early scene at a crowded train station where actors Melendy and Kuttner simultaneously portray a newspaper boy, the conductor, a passing policy officer and two travelers on the train. The broadness of how the two are playing the characters and the rapid-fire energy they use to spring from character signifies that we’re supposed to be finding this scene farcical. But what exactly is the joke? That they’re swapping hats as they swap characters? Shouldn’t there be more to it to earn the laugh? I realize that this might be seen as knit picky, but I think it speaks to an issue with the production where rather than scenes being funny, they signify that something funny is happening.

It feels like a waste because the acting company is clearly game for the kind of high-stakes farce that the production wants to be. There’s a degree of archness that everyone brings to their characters, (Except for Wheeler whose character functions as the straight man in all of the absurdity). Everything is pitched just a bit higher to generate that madcap energy, but again it feels like the company is doing so to make up for what’s not in the script and it occasionally forces the performances to go a bit too broad. Watching this production, I was reminded that last year Melendy gave a brilliant comedic performance in Centastage’s Noir Hamlet as the title character. I bring that up in part because I think Noir Hamlet was attempting something similar to The 39 Steps by riffing on a classic genre to absurd comedic ends, but also because I look to it as proof that with stronger material the actors could really make this type of show sing (granted the other actors weren’t in Noir Hamlet, but they’ve been brilliant elsewhere).

It’s worth pointing out that I think that the audience around me was a bit more willing to go with the production. Certainly, they laughed more than I did in the early scenes. But I also think that even the most vocal among them began to disengage as the play enters its home stretch. Hitchcock’s original film was under ninety minutes, while this runs closer to two hours. Given the loose nature of the plot you can’t help but wish that there had been some way to trim a couple of scenes.  

One of my favorite lines from a play comes from Sam Shepard’s True West (which Gloucester Stage presented last year). The two brother characters are arguing over a screenplay that they’re writing and in a moment of frustration one shouts to the other “It’s not a film it’s a movie.” I’d like to think that I’m the kind of consumer who doesn’t make those sorts of distinctions, that I can enjoy a broad spectrum of entertainment. But for me to do so, it needs to be based on a rock-solid foundation. There’s a lot of energy in Gloucester Stage’s The 39 Steps, but in service of what?  

The 39 Steps is presented by Gloucester Stage Company July 5-28, 2019.

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