The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, from the film by Alfred Hitchcock and the novel by John Buchan. Directed by Deena Pewtherer. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"These men will shtop at nothing!"
Rehearsal photo of Kevin Kilb, Meaghan Rogers, Christopher Gilbert, Brian Wagner; photo: Matt Sikora
When Annabella Schmidt dies in scene four of this play it is just the beginning of madness. It is also usually quite funny, but never as amusing as the moment in scene six when a charwoman discovers her body and sets in motion the non-stop chase experience that keeps this play on its toes. Usually, in the Hitchcock film and in the five other productions of this play that I've seen, when she opens her mouth to scream I am screaming with laughter. It is a pivotal moment in the show that has never failed to get me. . .until last Saturday night when it left me unmoved and died along with Annabella. That is a key problem for me.
In this sort of sad production at the Ghent Playhouse, opening its current season, a sense of humor is missing from the show. I don't know why that is, or what it is, but this usually perfect parody of Hitchcock's work lost me, and much of the audience around me, almost from the outset.
The actors work hard and seem to hit their marks on time. The silliness of the premise, so very Alfred H in every way, that an innocent by-stander can be mistaken for a terrible villain while the actual villain is respected by the police and the authorities is there. The high-minded blonde caught up in the plot against this man is still protesting and still falling in love with the man she believes is victimizing her. The incidental characters are still all on stage, including Scottish bar-maids, matrons and farmer's wives all played by two bearded men. Nothng is missing from this event but somehow everything is missing.
Christopher Gilbert played Richard Hannay, the innocent man, with an upright and almost up-tight grandiosity. His moral sensibility is intact. He's just good looking enough to strike a romantic figure. His voice is good and his intentions are the same. Yet he seemed almost lifeless on stage.
Meaghan Rogers gave her all to first Annabella, then to Pamela and finally to Margaret, the farmer's wife. We watched her fascinate, then hate, then be facinated by Hannay. Her characters were distinct and well played. Still she seemed lifeless, caricatured, disconnected.
Kevin Kilb and Brian Wagner played everyone else with specific characteristics, voices and mannerisms. They did it all very well. There is no fault here. They are good at what they did.
The set by Sam Reilly is superb. We know instantly that we are in a theater and that we are going to see people acting. Joanne Maurer's costumes are well defined and should be breathing life into the characters wearing them. Abby Lappen's choreography is a vital part of the play's constant movement from place to place and from direction to mis-direction. Isabel "Izzy" Filkins lighting design lets us see what's going on which is sometimes the best anyone can do in a manic experience like this one.
So what is the problem this time around? Why does this show not entrance the way it most often has done before? Maybe its just the visioning that should take place from the director's chair. Perhaps she doesn't understand the peculiarities of this play. Maybe her timing and her rhythms are off-kilter. Possibly the filmic transitions from scene to scene (there are 33 of them in all) are too slow and drag the play away from its normal pace. I haven't seen much of Deena Pewtherer's work in recent years and her program bio only lists one other comedy; it just could be that it's not her thing.
Or maybe it's just me. Maybe I've seen this show once too often and the last time, only this summer, in a very funny production. Maybe that's it. Me.
I want to recommend this production but I cannot do it. My memories of the really great ones won't let me. Still, if you've never seen it on stage you might find it just the right thing on a cool autumn evening or afternoon. After all, it is a mystery so why not indulge in one of your own and try it out. If it makes you roar with laughter and you meet me somewhere tell me. I'll admit it could just be me.
The 39 Steps plays at the Ghent Playhouse, 6 Town Hall Place, Ghent, NY through October 23. For information and tickets call the box office at 800-838-3006 or go on line to ghentplayhouse.org.