Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the Novel by John Bucham & Film by Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Eric Hissom
Florida Studio Theatre's Gompertz Theatre
Palm & Coconut Aves., Sarasota, 941-366-9000
Dec. 10, 2010 through Feb. 20, 2011

Reviewed by Marie J. Kilker

A WWI spy story, the novel created mystery and the film generated suspense, but as a play "The 39 Steps" stresses comedy. In fact, after introducing bored bachelor Richard Hannay, near the end of his Rope over wars and talk of war, the drama takes him almost immediately to the theatre. He's in a box on one side of the stage. There's a mysterious woman, probably with a gun, in the box on the other side. On stage Mr. Memory is absorbing and disclosing facts to amaze and, in vaudeville fashion, amuse. Will he become The Man Who Knew Too Much? When Hannay's back in his London apartment, the woman reappears. Apprehensive about Saboteurs under the lamp-post outside, she brings up 39 Steps, a dangerous Secret Agent with a finger joint missing, a map of Scotland. The Lady Vanishes for a few moments to refresh herself but staggers back with a knife in her back. Hannay immediately goes out his Rear Window to find her killer and heroically pursue the German spy ring. Under Suspicion of being her murderer, he's both pursued and pursuer North by Northwest. Meeting up with a blond Stranger on a Train, hampered by a Psycho Scottish farmer and The Farmer's Wife, captured by the Notorious spy chief, but aided by an attractive blonde, he learns secrets of life and death. Will they push him toward the first or the latter?

In looks as well as manner Michael Frederic owns the part of Richard Hannay, the stalwart tweedy Englishman, throughout the production. Playing the mysterious women, Letitia Lange best handles the typical cool Hitchcock blonde roles, while seeming uncomfortably wigged as the murdered foreign spy. Her accent isn't always easy to understand. Almost all of the 150 characters, however, pratfall to two "clowns", oversized Curran Connor and slimmer, shorter Sheffield Chastain, for portrayal. They work effectively fast and furiously as Mr. Memory, police, railroad employees, farmer and wife, detectives, inn keepers, bystanders, crowd members, spy ring and its chief. Under the direction of Eric Hissom, who was a clown in a national tour of the play, their appearances take the form of vaudeville turns-literally whenever they flip sides of their bodies or use hats to change identities. As broad burlesque, the mode sometimes gets repetitive or simply draws attention to itself rather than characters or what they say and do. When the dialogue includes a reference to a Hitchcock movie title, it's emphasized as if an audience needs help in "getting" it. This points to a difference between FST's production and "The 39 Steps" I saw early in its London run. The Brits delivered the lines straight, trusting the audience to understand allusions to Hitchcock's films as well as the comedic thrust of the play and its farcical elements. To me, the serious version seemed funnier.

April Soroko's costumes and uncluttered scenic design, embellished by appropriate props and frequent appearance of a door, admirably aid transformations of characters and 30 locales. A backlit plastic shower curtain and emulation of an airplane swooping down and out into the theatre are striking within Joseph P. Oshry's resourceful lighting design. Keeping the audience Spellbound is Britt Sandusky's sound design and engineering.

Production Stage Manager for is Kelli Karen. Eric Hissom's direction dictates such swift movement that the two acts and a 15 minute break last but 1 hour, 55 minutes in all.

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