Taking Steps toward a lively evening

Jan 26

EXTENDED THROUGH FEB. 20!
39 Steps 1
The stellar cast of TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps comprises (from left) Rebecca Dines, Mark Anderson Phillips, Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown. Below: Dines and Phillips take a step closer to romance. Photos by Mark Kitaoka

Whatever will we do when the British have thoroughly unstuffed themselves? That stiff-upper-lip stuff and famous British reserve have long been targets for comedy – especially by the British themselves.

We love to lampoon the stalwart Brit character – the rigid veneer that provided such fodder for Kneehigh Theatre Company’s brilliant adaptation of Noel Coward’s Brief Encounter, which we saw here at American Conservatory Theater. British frigidity was practically its own character in that show, which threw two placid lovers – a doctor and a housewife – into an ocean of romantic emotion and took incredible glee in the destruction of their noble facades.

I couldn’t help thinking about Brief Encounter during The 39 Steps, the rollicking stage adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film of the same name.

Both Coward and Hitchcock (working on an adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel) enjoy throwing prim-and-proper Brits into tumultuous events and watching their reserve knock against passion and danger.

Stage adaptor Patrick Barlow goes Hitchcock one better. He turns the tumult into a farcical fracas that allows four adept actors to play 140 different characters.

A hit on London’s West End in 2006, the play became Broadway’s longest-running comedy two years later. The touring production played San Francisco’s Curran Theatre in December of 2009, and now Mountain View’s TheatreWorks has cast it with a quartet of local favorites.

Under the direction of Artistic Director Robert Kelley, it’s hard to imagine a more enjoyable evening of mystery mayhem and slapstick espionage. Kelley has cast an irresistible quartet of actors to create the whirlwind, and the result is two hours of constant laughs.

39 Steps 2Mark Anderson Phillips is Richard Hannay, a Canadian visiting London. Bored, he craves something mindless and trivial, so he goes to the theater. Naturally. There he meets a classic femme fatale, a German named Annabella Schmidt played by Rebecca Dines with an accent think as strudel.

When Annabella comes home with Richard and ends up with a knife in her back, the adventure begins. In true Hitchcock style, Richard becomes an innocent man on the run, and his journey takes him to Scotland, where invaluable comedians Dan Hiatt and Cassidy Brown chew the accent as if it were haggis-flavored taffy.

Joe Ragey’s set creates a pretty but second-rate theater complete with elevated box seats on the sides, and the actors seem to be playing the theater’s company actors. Phillips is the vain leading man (the narration keeps emphasizing how handsome Richard is, what with his wavy brown hair and pencil moustache) and Dines is the beleaguered leading lady. Hiatt and Cassidy are the hammy scene-stealers who can’t help playing the show as if it were their own vaudevillian showcase.

The costumes by B. Modern add fuel to the comic fire, especially when Brown does drag. His buxom Scottish hotelier is hilarious, while Hiatt’s villainous Professor sports an impressive two-tone pompadour that wouldn’t be out of place in a band like Josie and the Pussycats.

Act 2 of The 39 Steps loses some steam, especially in a long hotel room sequence, but most of the show is filled with deft physical comedy and cute allusions to other Hitchcock films (the Psycho reference is particularly funny).

What’s especially rewarding about a show like this is how spectacularly theatrical it is. With cargo trunks, ladders and a lot of stage smoke, four skilled actors create a world that sucks you in despite the inanity of it all. You’re laughing at the farce of it all, but the story exerts a certain pull because the characters are distinct, the locations are effectively evoked and you’re having a grand time enjoying it on a number of levels.

The 39 Steps isn’t exactly a stairway to paradise, but it’s definitely more than three dozen steps in the right direction.

FOR MORE INFORMATION

TheatreWorks’ The 39 Steps continues an extended run through Feb. 20 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View. Tickets are $24-$79. Call 650-463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org for information.

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