First, a confession: I had a 39 Steps phase. Aside from the annoying necessities of everyday life, it was all I thought about for a solid month or two. Now, my 39 Steps phase did not last as long as my Phantom phase in sophomore year of high school (sooo many message boards. so many.) or my Hairspray phase soon after (don’t worry–I matured into Ragtime, Too Much Light, and Good Person of Szechwan phases in due time), but it was still one of those defining theater experiences that completely change the way I viewed the art form, even if I didn’t quite understand how.
I first saw 39 Steps at New World Stages five years ago. Parodying the popular Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name, it begins when Englishman Richard Hannay is embroiled in an international espionage scheme after meeting a mysterious woman at the theater. The show pays homage to the film’s canonical status in the spy genre, as well as to its director’s famous silhouette, and remains faithful to its basic plot. But the film’s fame is only a handy accessory to the show’s success. The show turns the dark, winding, and erotic world of espionage into comedic gold.
In this production, which opened at the Union Square Theatre last week, Robert Petkoff plays the ennui-filled hero Hannay, though his heroism is more passive survival than actual heroics. The other actors in the four-person ensemble all play multiple parts. Brittany Vicars plays all the women Hannay meets along his journey, all viable love interests for our dashing protagonist and all much more worthy of heroic status than Hanney. Billy Carter and Arnie Burton, returning to the role he originated in the 2008 Broadway production, tackle the other 100+ characters as Clown #1 and Clown #2.
Except for the change in cast and location, this new production is exactly the same as the one performed at New World Stages, and most likely the one currently running on the West End, all directed by Maria Aitken. Frankly, I can’t imagine it any other way– partly because the production is so fantastic, but also because the show needs such a well-tuned vehicle to keep up with its complexities and I don’t think any variations would help get it to its destination. At last week’s performance, the show’s gags still had audiences in hysterics and admiring the production’s brilliant comedic timing and witty self-consciousness.
My thoughts on theater and the theatrical form have evolved a lot over the past few years, thanks in large part to this here blog. One of the topics I love to explore is what makes theater different from other storytelling mediums. How does the experience of watching The Producers on stage, for example, compare to seeing the film, even when all the components of the show remain the same? A comprehensive answer would require a dissertation-length blog post but I think that the experience of watching 39 Steps might hold part of the answer.
To embrace theatricality (or the theater experience) is to embrace the theater’s limitations. It’s knowing that, unlike the lens of a camera, you cannot take the viewer to the real-life Scottish highlands. It’s accepting that obviously stuffed animal as a squawking chicken . It’s knowing that a company of four actors are playing about 150 roles, and appreciating the quick costume changes and the meticulous wit such a performance requires. It’s laughing when a chase scene on top of a moving train is ably replicated with just a few trunks and sound effects instead of bemoaning the show’s cheap, unbelievable special effects.
Looking back, I realize that I fell in love with 39 Steps because it was one of the first shows that required me to be conscious of theatricality. A show like this forces you to be complicit with the players. You are in silent agreement with them that everything you’re watching is constructed into reality by bridging your willingness and the actors’ skill. And in case you weren’t conscious of it before, just go see 39 Steps. Did you feel like you were on your tip-toes the whole time even though you were sitting comfortably in your seat? Did your laughter and amusement in some way double as a sense of pride in yourself and in the folks on stage? You just saw theater doing what theater does best.
39 Steps is playing at the Union Square Theatre. Tickets Here.