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Preview: The 39 Steps

Community Players Walk The 39 Steps

Bob McLaughlin and John Lieder

The final play of Community Players 2016-2017 season is Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps, a hilarious sendup of espionage thrillers, particularly the films of Alfred Hitchcock.

As a title, The 39 Steps has a long and fascinating history.  The novel was written in 1915 by John Buchan (1875-1940), a Scottish politician, diplomat, and prolific author of dozens of books: travelogues, biographies, histories (including a 24-volume history of World War I, written while the war was going on!), and especially adventure tales.  While his novels are uniformly excellent page-turners, he is most remembered for the five novels focusing on the proto-James Bond-ish Richard Hannay, the first of which was The Thirty-Nine Steps.  In it, Hannay, recently returned to London from Rhodesia, meets an American who fears for his life and who claims to have evidence of an anarchist plot to hurl Europe into war.  When the man is murdered, Hannay finds himself on the run from the police (who think he did it) and the conspirators (who think he knows too much).  Can he stay alive long enough to save England from invasion?

Twenty years later, Alfred Hitchcock was drawn to this tale of an innocent man who becomes the center of others’ intrigues, a formula he returned to many times over his career.  In the film, British leading man Robert Donat plays Hannay, and Madeleine Carroll plays a new character, a reluctant companion to Hannay as he skitters around Scotland trying to evade his pursuers.  Hitchcock also changed the murdered man to a murdered woman.  The novel was filmed again in 1959, 1978, and 2008, though none of these versions was as successful as Hitchcock’s version, despite the freedom he takes with Buchan’s plot.

Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation takes greater freedom yet: think Hitchcock’s film crossed with Monty Python.  With four actors playing dozens of characters, the focus is on the stagecraft as the play affectionately satirizes the story, the film, and several of Hitchcock’s other films.  The play opened in London in 2006, won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy, and ran for nine years.  The New York production opened in 2008 and played three Broadway houses until January 2010, when it briefly closed and then re-opened Off-Broadway.

Community Players’ version of 39 Steps is, first and foremost, a farce, buried deep inside of which is a fun little mystery. The fun in our production starts with the introductory comments by director Scott Myers, a shadowy “good evening” by Bruce Parrish as Sir Alfred Hitchcock, and continues to the hilarious resolution of the plot.

Myers directs an exceedingly talented and versatile cast of four actors. Jeff Ready plays our hero, Richard Hannay. Ready gives a steady, realistic performance amidst the mayhem which surrounds him. He is joined by Maggie O’Brien who delightfully plays the spy Annabelle, the Scottish farm-wife Margaret, and Pamela, who at first turns Hannay in to the police but then shares the last part of the mystery with him.

The play is a tour de “farce” for the considerable talents of “clowns” Brian Artman and Alex Knightwright, who each portray several dozen different characters, male and female. With numerous costume changes, an untold number of props to manage, and multiple dialects to master, the clowns have an exceedingly difficult challenge. Knightwright and Artman are both more than up to the task.

Sound Effects/Lighting designers Dan Virtue and Eli Mundy developed sound effects that come in rapid fire succession and are intricately coordinated with the dialogue and action. Similarly, costume designer Opal Virtue had to cope with an endless progression of quick costume changes.

The actors are occasionally joined onstage by the stage crew, led by assistant director/stage manager Judy Stroh with help from Erica O’Neill and set designer and master builder Bruce Parrish. Parrish has designed numerous rolling set pieces which provide scenes ranging from an apartment to a train to a hotel to a farmhouse to the London Palladium.

Marcia Weiss and Kathy Parrish are co-producers, Carol Plotkin and Dorothy Mundy are teaming up for properties, Rich Plotkin is doing sound, and Wendi Ayers is house manager.

The pay-what-you-can Preview performance is Thursday, May 4, with regular performances May 5-7 and 12-14. $10 discount tickets are available for our Mother’s Day performance on May 14th. Use coupon code “MOTHER” at checkout. 39 Steps contains only staged slapstick violence and no objectionable language. If you are a fan of Hitchcock, you will enjoy the several amusing allusions to his films within the play. If you aren’t, you’ll still be in for what promises to be an immensely enjoyable evening.

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Photos by John Lieder