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“The 39 Steps” an amusing must see production

BY CARY WALSH

Oct. 14, 2010

Buy into a comedic, fast-paced murder mystery, where amusing situations are waiting around every corner. Watching only four actors has never been so entertaining.
In fact, the casting of to portray dozens of characters turns out to be the main ingredient for hilarity in “The 39 Steps,” currently in production at the Cleveland Play House.

Ideal husbandOriginally a dramatic novel and then a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, playwright Patrick Barlow translated this classic serious story into an uproarious, laugh-out-loud murder mystery for the stage. Directed by Peter Amster, this production is able to poke fun at both the film noir style and the whodunit genre while poking the audience’s funny bone along the way.

The story, set in 1930s London, follows a lonely fellow named Richard Hannay on an adventurous chase of a lifetime. While enjoying the talents of Mr. Memory in a local music hall, a gun is fired and our handsome hero finds himself in the company of a young lady and, thanks to the information she springs on him, quickly wrapped up in a web of double agents and international secrets.

When the woman is found dead in his apartment, Hannay is suspected of murder and forced to run from the law to find those responsible and stop a terrible plot. Along the way, Hannay, played by Nick Sandys, meets all the types of characters one would find in a Hitchcock film, all of whom are played by three incredibly talented actors.

Sarah Nealis does a wonderful job portraying this story’s three damsels in distress. Joe Foust and Rob Johansen, noted simply as Clown 1 and Clown 2 in the playbill, have the biggest challenge of making 150 changes into assorted characters.

They do an outstanding job of keeping the audience on edge, curious about who they will turn into next and how they will do it. During one scene, when Foust and Johansen play fellow travelers bouncing along on a train with Hannay, they quick-switch into policemen, train porters, a newspaper boy and back to the travelers—each with distinctive accents and bits of defining clothing—instantaneously and right before our eyes.

They do this several times, in rapid succession. In other scenes, they change from male to female. This element of fast-paced character shifts is the highlight of the play.
Period costumes by Tracy Dorman and clever, sparse set design by Linda Buchanan play a huge role in transporting the audience to the 1930s where the props are more comedic than realistic. One freestanding doorway, for example, is the entrance and exit to every room imagined on stage.

To escape a room, Richard Hannay crawls through a window frame he holds in his hands by pulling the frame over his body. Even visual effects, like wind, are manufactured by the actors themselves for the sheer fun of it.

The audience is able to recognize the silliness of this production from the opening scene, where Hannay confides in us as if we were sitting right there in his living room. Throughout the play, he mocks his fellow actors’ cheesy foreign accents and stares down crew members, who miss a cue or generate an obnoxious sound effect.
Combining all of these amusing qualities makes this a must-see production. “The 39 Steps” is so many steps ahead of the classic murder mystery formula it parodies that it makes for a delightful evening’s entertainment. Student tickets are $17 and can be purchased by calling 216-795-7000 or visiting www.clevelandplayhouse.com.

Writer is a student in COM 327, Media Criticism.