Alfred Hitchcock. The name alone conjures images of intrigue and suspense, terror and surprise, dark psychologies and even darker film exposures. But comedy? Except for a self-aware smirk here and there, Hitchcock tended to play it fairly straight, extracting most of his fun from the immersion of average people in bizarre circumstances.
On the face of it, then, turning Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps into a farce would not appear to be a winning proposition. Yet somehow, playwright Patrick Barlow’s raucously silly adaptation works, and the play—which won an Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2007—is receiving an endearing, laugh-a-minute production at The Guthrie’s McGuire Proscenium stage, performed by a veritable Dream Team of local comedy: Luverne Seifert, Jim Lichtscheidl, Sarah Agnew, and Robert Berdahl.
The 39 Steps came out in 1935, and is one of Hitchcock’s early hits—so early that it looks clumsy and innocent today, though it was on the cutting edge of mystery thriller-dom for its time. In fact, the movie pretty much invented the spy-thriller genre, echoes of which reverberate throughout film history, from James Bond to Jason Bourne.
The story is about a bored Englishman who meets a strange woman at the theater and immediately gets sucked into a world of international spy intrigue involving a secret called “the 39 steps,” which certain people are willing to kill for. The play uses much of the dialogue from the movie word-for-word, and is written for four actors, though there are dozens of characters. Quick costume changes and clever theatrical devices are used to signify character shifts, and director Joel Sass has done his usual magic in making it all flow seamlessly.
Though the dialogue and story are played for laughs, the show is a theatrically sophisticated romp that uses subtle but ingenious tricks to create a movie-like experience. For instance, when the characters are crawling outside of and on top of a train, they flap their coats and hat brims to make it look like they’re being blown by a strong wind. The two actors who shift characters the most, Seifert and Lichtscheidl, often use hats to do it. In one scene, Lichsteidl uses three rotating hats to create an entire conversation with himself, and several times Seifert switches from a detective into the innkeeper’s wife and back in an instant, right before your very eyes. The famous chase scene across the moor is done with shadow puppets and humorously references several of Hitchcock’s best-known films, including North by Northwest, Psycho, and Rear Window.
What holds it all together, though, is the comic genius of the acting ensemble. Robert Berdahl plays everyman Richard Hannay with just the right amount of charm and ego. Sarah Agnew tackles all the female roles—spy woman, shepherd’s wife, love interest—with hilarious dexterity. And both Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert are brilliant. Lichtscheidl can make you laugh at just about anything, and Seifert’s face is a mini theater all its own, full of rubbery contortions and funny expressions. Seriously, I could watch Seifert squint and cringe all day; the man is simply a genius.
All in all, The 39 Steps is one of the giddiest, most entertaining shows to hit the Proscenium Stage in a while. If you want to “get” all the references, dial up the original movie on Netflix and watch it, then go to the theater. But if you just want to have a good time, the play will deliver that too, in ways that will surprise and amaze you.
The 39 Steps continues at The Guthrie through Dec. 19, guthrietheater.org