The 39 Steps opens with our hero, Richard Hannay, bemoaning his idle status and concluding he wants to do something “mindless and trivial, utterly pointless.”
Then he exclaims, “I’ll go to the theater,” to knowing laughs from the audience.
You couldn’t back up his characterization of theater with other offerings on Lexington stages this month. The 2011-12 theater season opened with a pair of plays, Project SEE Theatre’s boom and Balagula Theatre’s One Flea Spare that had laughs but presented weighty themes that stayed with us long after the final bows.
But there is nothing wrong with the escapist fare Hannay seeks, and Studio Players offers us some pure comic relief with this delightful confection of a play.
The conceit of Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of The 39 Steps is that Alfred Hitchcock’s sprawling 1935 movie is recreated onstage with only four actors. Tim Hull delivers matinee-idol charm playing Richard, Sharon Sikorski is his three flames, and Randy Hall and Graeme Hart are billed as “Everyone Else” — seriously, everyone else: spies, police, underwear salespeople, hotel proprietors, schlocky theater acts, train conductors, maniacal criminal masterminds and scores of other characters, sometimes in the same scene.
The scenes move fast, with actors constantly changing props and set pieces and costumes with the help of the show’s hard-working running crew, Katee Holznagel, Rob Maddox and Tonya Spears.
Unlike most theatrical endeavors, there is no effort here to make this look easy. A big part of the fun of the play is watching the actors exhaust themselves to keep the show going.
This is especially true with Hart and Hall, who bring their own distinct talents to their roles. Hall is a master of voices, distinguishing his characters with a wide array of inflections, including a hilarious barely audible speaker at a campaign rally. Hart nails his numerous opportunities to play more than one character at a time, clearly putting tremendous effort into flipping back and forth, but also making it work.
What makes the production succeed is that director Ross Carter does not let this show devolve into only a theatrical stunt. There is a story here about a man falsely accused of a crime who is on the run trying to clear his name, save his country and get the girl.
Richard is a chance for Hull to show yet another side of his theatrical persona, adding dashing leading man to his long list of character credits. Sikorski is an engaging leading lady(ies?) whether she’s the German spy Annabella Schmidt, the farmer’s wife who longs to be part of Richard’s world of intrigue, or Pamela, who is unwittingly drawn into the chase and eventually falls in love with Richard. Hull and Sikorski keep us involved and rooting for them.
The 39 Steps is essentially brain candy, but the other major element in making it work is that Carter, stage manager Reinee Dunn and the rest of the crew hardly took a mindless and pointless approach to presenting the show. There is clearly an elaborate game plan at work to make the show go on. Thursday’s opening-night performance revealed a few holes and slips, but you sense that as the four-week run goes on, the production will get tighter, quicker and even more fun.