Regional Reviews: Boston
The 39 Steps
Also see Josh's review of Julius Caesar
Of course, Hannay's an old pro at it now. He's been running across London and Scotland from a murder he didn't commit, and presently he's hiding out handcuffed to a beautiful woman. You might say he's the original wrong man. The 39 Steps, at Moonbox Productions, is a rollicking comedic take on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film that spawned an entire genre of everymen evading capture and sleek spy stories from North by Northwest to James Bond. Adhering closely to the movie's screenplay (more so than the original John Buchan novel), the adapter Patrick Barlow has found a way to make a nonstop chase movie into a theatrical experience, employing a cast of four and a little old-fashioned stage magic.
In the starring role, essayed by Robert Donat on screen, Kevin Cirone perfectly suits the dashing and deviously charming Richard Hannay. A throwback to a bygone era, Cirone boasts a perfectly plummy accent and fits the repeated description of Hannay's "thick wavy hair, piercing blue eyes, and attractive pencil-thin mustache." Opposite him, Sarah Gazdowicz plays three women: a mysterious spy, a farmer's wife, and the requisite Hitchcock blonde. She's less distinctive than Cirone, but she has her moments, including a comic gem where she slips off her stockings while handcuffed to Hannay.
As our leading man and woman romp through the Scottish highlands, the other two actors, Bob Mussett and Matthew Zahnzinger, play the rest of the characters (dozens upon dozens of them!), switching costumes and accents with breakneck speed. Their tour de force comes in a virtuoso scene aboard a train, where the two men impersonate (and I'm probably leaving some out) chatty passengers, nosy policemen, detectives, a newsboy, a conductor, and an old lady, shifting personas from line to line. Mussett and Zahnzinger seem to be having a ball as they run the gamut of stock characters: a gruff, thickly brogued Scot suspicious of his bride's wandering eye; a weary inn owner and his frisky wife; an erudite secret agent with a missing half-finger and a suppressed German accent.
In a more straightforward adaptation, the episodic plot might not hold our interest much. The central mysterythe 39 Steps themselvesmatters a great deal to the characters, but not much to us. So Barlow fills the play with rapid-fire screwball dialogue that propels it forward, making fun of itself all along the way. You can spot many of the jokes coming, and you're likely to groan at some of them. (When a hymnal miraculously stops a bullet, a policeman remarks, "Some of those hymns are terrible hard to get through.") But there's plenty of wit, too, in this loving homage to the old-fashioned yarns of Hitch and the many filmmakers he influenced.
This feels like the type of show that could play itself, but it requires a certain ingenuity from its players. Thankfully, director Allison Olivia Choat has a proper understanding of the madcap style. Sets are pulled together from a ramshackle assortment of props: four chairs and a ladder instantly form a train compartment; three trunks constitute a hotel bed. Between scenes, Mussett and Zahnzinger (with the help of stagehands) playfully strike and remount the sets, carting coat racks and doorframes to and fro in a hectic dance, sometimes tripping over themselves in the process. This early in the run, their movements sometimes feel under-choreographed, and the overlong transitions threaten to slow the play's internal motor. But once each scene resumes, Choat and her cast pick up the rhythm again.
Nestled in his comfortable flat at the top of the play, Hannay expresses a certain boredom for his cozy, unruffled life. "Find something to do, you bloody fool!" he tells himself. "Something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless." Mindless and lighthearted, The 39 Steps may be, but this production does have a point: to remind us of theater at its most imaginative, where four actors and a few props can conjure the most unlikely stories right before our eyes.
The 39 Steps is presented by Moonbox Productions through December 9, 2017, at the Boston Center for the Arts Plaza Theater, 539 Tremont St., Boston MA. For tickets and information, visit www.moonboxproductions.org or call 617-933-8600.
Cast: Kevin Cirone (Richard Hannay); Sarah Gazdowicz (Pamela, Annabella Schmidt, Margaret); Bob Mussett (Man 1); Matthew Zahnzinger (Man 2).
Creative Team: Sharman Altshuler (Producer), Allison Olivia Choat (Director), Arthur Gomez (Assistant Director), Jo Williams (Production Manager), Sam Biondolillo (Assistant Production Manager), Amy Lehrmitt (Stage Manager), Emily Cuerdon (Assistant Stage Manager), Brian Melcher (Tech Director), John Devlin (Set Designer), Jeffrey E. Salzberg (Lighting Designer), Erica DeSautels (Costume Designer/Wardrobe), Dan Costello (Sound Designer), Emily Rosser (Props Designer), Lauren Scattolini (Master Electrician).