New York City Theater
Cort Theatre, Manhattan
This show is 39 steps to sheer delirium—a trip to an improbable world. How appropriate that “39 Steps” begins and ends with a magic show! Meant to be a spoof of the old Alfred Hitchcock films, and specifically “39 Steps,” the show goes far beyond that. For good reason, this “39 Steps” won the 2007 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy.
And now the British show makes its mark on Broadway, at the Cort Theatre, after a run at the Roundabout Theatre. The underlying tale is, in fact, Hitchcockian. Richard Hannay, while attending the theater performance of “Memory Man,” is accosted by a mysterious dark (and of course beautiful) woman. She convinces him that she needs protection, and, when he takes her home, she is murdered. Hannay is innocent, but the prime suspect, so he goes on the run—all the way to Scotland. Along the way he meets (or avoids) an assortment of characters, including the love of his life.
So much for the story. But what director Maria Aitken and her gifted cast (Arnie Burton, Charles Edwards, Jennifer Ferrin, Cliff Saunders) do with that story is extraordinary. These four create what feels like a cast of thousands. While Edwards is Hannay all the way through—the hero, as it were--every one else switches persona in a flash. It is legerdemain, with lightning-quick change of costumes, wigs, personalities. With remarkably few props, they manage to create London theater or bleak Scotland or wild train scenes. Edwards himself, as Hannay, gets into one fix after another. At one point, he finds himself at a podium where he is expected to give a stirring political speech (every one’s nightmare), which he manages with style. Ferrin is delicious in all her roles—but especially so as the browbeaten Scottish housewife. But Burton and Saunders are in a class apart—creating skits that are part vaudeville, part Agatha Christie, part Monty Python, and entirely amazing.
Not surprisingly, this “39 Steps” was a hit in London, but should be equally savored by audiences this side of the Atlantic.
May 5, 2008