Theater review: ‘The 39 Steps’

You need only one clue to explain The 39 Steps, the gut-bustingly funny farce at Lowndes Shakespeare Center. That clue is in the very first scene, in the arch of the eyebrow belonging to Spencer Plachy, the actor who plays dashing hero-turned-fugitive Richard Hannay.

With an eyebrow arched as pointedly as that, you know that everything to follow is going to be foolish. And if you can buy into foolish – and who can’t? – this Orlando Shakespeare Theater production promises you a swell old time.

Four very funny actors have made merry, big time, with The 39 Steps, a story that has grown increasingly sillier as it has morphed from 1915 suspense novel to 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller to a 2005 stage play with no goals except making you laugh. That play takes as farcical all that thrillers hold dear. But it’s the inspired and disciplined silliness of those four actors, along with the same from director Jim Helsinger and his top-notch designers, that makes this 39 Steps race along as riotously as it does.

Hitchcock may have been the master of suspense, but his version of The 39 Steps comes across as a little dopey now, an episodic ‘30s thriller with way more implausibilities than one audience is apt to want to handle. So it’s no surprise that British comedian/playwright/actor Patrick Barlow took Hitchcock’s script and ran with it – adapting it as a farce for only four actors, one to play the ever-so-debonair hero, one to play all of his romantic interests and the other two to play everybody else, including men, women and an inanimate object or two.

So any production ought to be an actor’s dream, one that allows for at least three of the four performers to create character upon character and to do it, in some cases, in less than a blink of an eye. Just watch the scene in which Plachy’s unflappable Hannay is fleeing on a train to Scotland: Brad DePlanche turns up as a traveling salesman, a cop and a conductor and Brandon Roberts as a newsboy, a salesman and a frail old woman – and all of them, it seems, onstage at the very same time.

It gets crowded up there with DePlanche and Roberts around, and these two gifted comics are unstoppable, tearing onto the stage in black trench coats and carting the lamppost they’ll be smoking under as they come. Roberts (who is called upon at one point to portray a bog) is best as the Scottish hotelkeeper’s wife who wishes the romantic best for the young couple seeking shelter beneath her roof. And DePlanche, who has played many, many characters at Orlando Shakes, turns out the best of them this time: He’s at once hilarious and disciplined, and his version of a garrulous old man at a political rally is both comical and as authentic as it can be.

Deanna Gibson is a stitch in her three roles – especially as a heavily accented foreign spy (“I know him wery vell,” she says) and then as a Scottish farmer’s woebegone wife who mourns Hannay when he leaves. Gibson can twitch with the best of them: In one death scene, she twitches along to the melodramatic soundtrack. And Plachy makes the most of the unfazed hero: He may be on the lam, but his stiff upper lip never falters, and when he jumps from a bridge he pauses, mid-fall, to put on his hat and adjust it just so.

Helsinger has led his actors to be inventive again and again, and surely they must have had a fine time in rehearsal coming up with all this stuff. Sometimes, in fact, there’s just too much of it: A few of the scenes do get bogged down in stage business, and this is probably a case when a little less might have been even better.

But it’s hard to fault so many good ideas, which extend to Denise Warner’s costumes, both glamorous and witty; to Jim Hunter’s cloak-and-daggerish lighting; to Ray Recht’s wonderfully theatrical stage design and to Britt Sandusky’s radio-theater-like sound.

There are also plenty of pointers towards Hitchcock’s other movies, and this 39 Steps has lots of fun with them. (Any show that uses stick puppets to enact the thrill of a chase is fine by me.) Maybe there are Hitchcock purists out there who decry the deconstruction of their idol’s work into farce. But somehow, somewhere, Hitch must be laughing – and you don’t have to look too hard to find him up there onstage with everybody else.

‘The 39 Steps’

What: Orlando Shakespeare Theater production of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock movie, based on the novel by John Buchan.
Where: Margeson Theater, Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, through Oct. 10 (also, senior matinees 2 p.m. Sept. 22 and 29).
Cost: $22-$38 general, $15 senior matinees.
Call: 407-447-1700 Ext. 1.
Online: orlandoshakes.org.

(Photos: Top, Deanna Gibson and Spencer Plachy; bottom, Brandon Roberts, Brad DePlanche and Spencer Plachy. Photos by Tony Firriolo/Orlando Shakespeare Theater.)

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