AISLE SAY New York
THE 39 STEPS
the Alfred Hitchcock film
of the John Buchan novel
by Patrick Barlow
from a concept by
Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon
Directed by Maria Aitken
Starring Charles Edwards, Arnie
Cliff Saunders, Jennifer Ferrin
Presented by the Roundabout Theatre Company
at the American Airliners Theatre on 42nd Street
Reviewed by David Spencer
Take a classic, old style suspense novel; the signature cinema style of a renowned director whose specialty was thrilling audiences; put them in the hands of four actors, who will deliver the first through the filter of the second and lovingly parody both (with wry characterization, quick changes and inspired austerity-budget special effects)—and the promise of a rollicking good time is in the air; even more so when the enterprise, imported from the West End, has already copped the Olivier Award for Best Comedy.
Yet, The 39 Steps, unofficially but unmistakably adapted from Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 rendering of the John Buchan novel (both of which have slipped into the public domain and can be downloaded from internet sites, the film here, and the novel here), is, at least to an American sensibility, much less fun than you expect it to be. (The stage adaptation is by Patrick Barlow, from a concept by Simon Corbie and Nobby Dimon.)
Oh, there is the expected deftness at daftness, under the meticulously timed direction of Maria Aitken, and there are smiles aplenty to be gained from the uses of simple props to suggest complex environmental and cinematic effects, and the oft-delightful broad-strokes characterizations of the stage actors are in truth no less stark than those of their film actor forebears, playing it deadly serious in the Hitchcock movie (said similarity being no doubt the point); but what we're prepared for is the thriller equivalent of The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy: by which I mean the divine inspiration of genre concepts taken to iconic heights of comedic madness. Instead, whatÕs delivered is the thriller equivalent of—well, fill in your favorite "soft" Britcom-of-manners—Good Neighbours, maybe, or To The Manor Born. (Read this next as with the clipped British accent common to English movies and debonair stars of the 1930s:) Certainly, my deah, there's a proportion of wicky and wacky and whatnot, but nothing that would make you snort your afternoon tea or keep you from digesting a good biscuit. It's civilized comedy, don't you see? (Or should that be civilised?)
The Hitchcock movie departs from the novel quite a bit and the stage production follows the film's lead in most regards, its tactic to make a bit of action just a tad more actiony (the onscreen chase through the train becomes an onstage chase atop the train, which lets the actors flap the backs of their long coats as if the wind is lifting them), a bit of caricature a bit more caricaturey (two fatuous lingerie salesmen [Arnie Burton, Cliff Saunders] become music hall fops; a moralistic, money-grubbing Scottish farmer [again Mr. Saunders] and his repressed much younger wife [Jennifer Ferrin] become—well, that, but the extreme manifestation of that). Thing is, though, that for all its old-timey techniques, a few of which it may even have pioneered, the film is not ripe for parody in the manner of something like Xanadu; it's a perfectly respectable early work (both for cinema and for Mr. Hitchcock) and since it can't be hung out to dry, so to speak (it's pretty dry as is), it simply gets goosed a little bit. And a goosing is not a royal workover.
Subsequently, a little fun had at the expense of romantic lead role Richard Hannay's square-jawed handsomeness and stiff-upper lip resilience (as briskly personified by Charles Edwards, the one holdover from the London cast, and the only player who assays a single part throughout) goes a long way. As does fun poked at the mysterious foreign woman murdered in his flat, and the flustered ingˇnue who unwillingly at first but unavoidably becomes his accomplice (both again Ms. Ferrin), the arch-villain (again Mr. Burton) and countless, albeit countable others.
The 39 Steps may play funnier to a British sensibility because at base it's about British sensibility under fire. To us, that's already an absurdity of understatement (cinematically speaking, that is): a jaw squared, squared is a mathematical redundancy, and a stiff upper lip made stiffer just provides a harder target for the leading lady to plant her softer one upon.
As the cockney wheeler-dealer Arthur Daley of the funnier and more suspenseful British TV series Minder might sum up: It's just not an eye-larious thriller, my son. More an amusing spot of bother...