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“39 Steps” Is Theater Doing What Theater Does Best

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.

Arnie Burton, Brittany Vicars, and Robert Petkoff in “39 Steps”

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.

Billy Carter and Robert Petkoff in “39 Steps”

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.

7 Awesome and Not-So-Awesome Things about MURDER BALLAD

murder ballad

Murder Ballad, a new rock musical currently enjoying a 2013 run at the Union Square Theatre (after playing with Manhattan Theatre Club last fall), is some good bloody fun. Here is LMezz’s killer rundown of the production:

Awesome: The space.

This was our first time in the Union Square Theatre, which is the perfect location for a rock musical. (Union Square! Hipsters! Street Bong Sellers!) The show is set in the round, with audience seating in all four sides of the theatre, along with additional lounge seating in the playing space. The upstage section is spanned by a bar, the stage-right portion by a pool table, and the stage-left section by the band. Just by entering the theatre, you can sense that some rock musical awesomeness was about to be had.

Awesome: There’s a working bar onstage!

The onstage bar is a working one during the pre-show, and audience members can order drinks. Closer to the start of the show, the actors enter in character and “blend in” with the surroundings. It is an effective way to establish the characters before the beginning of the show.

Not-So-Awesome: There’s a working bar onstage!

This is not a point against Murder Ballad per se, but to what I sense will be (is already?) a trend in shows that allow you to order drinks and drink them on stage. Both the off-Broadway and Broadway incarnations of Once feature the pre-show bar, and I’m sure many other productions will have doe-eyed audience members that are oh-so-surprised as they wander on stage to order the same bottle of beer they could have purchased in the lobby. Or maybe I’m just bitter that we had to wait so long to have an even readier access to booze in the theatre.

Stocked-bar
I could have used one of these for the Broadway production of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

Awesome: Two ladies wrote this!

Julie Jordan came up with the concept and book for Murder Ballad and teamed up with Juliana Nash, who composed the music and co-wrote lyrics. This is the first rock musical (let alone musical) I’ve seen written only by women (If you know any others, leave a comment!), and I hope it’s not the last.

Awesome: The cast.

Most of the cast from MTC’s fall mounting of Murder Ballad have returned this spring. John Ellison Conlee, who reprises his role as Michael, is so believable as a loving husband and father that it’s exciting to see him finally snap. Will Swenson, playing bartender and scorned lover Tom, embodies everything moody and dangerous. After quitting acting this spring, original cast member Karen Olivo has been replaced by Caissie Levy. While I was sad to have missed Olivo last fall, Levy is fantastic in her own right as Sara, the troubled center of the love triangle.

But the definite show-stealer Rebecca Naomi Jones, who is equal parts scary and sexy as the Narrator. She plays the role with great comedic timing and a wicked gleam in her eye, and when she takes the stage, she owns it. By the time the final song has ended, you realize that she has been trolling you all along—and don’t even care.

U mad?

Not-So-Awesome: The Movement

Director Trip Cullman had the task of staging a sung-through rock musical—in the round. This wasn’t an easy one, and he was effective in having the actors playing to all four sides throughout the show.

But this wasn’t to say that there weren’t a few hiccups. Sometimes the choreography seemed unmotivated, with the actors thrashing and jumping about the stage even though their songs were already making their emotions clear. It was as if someone had seen the musical version of American Idiot too many times and said, “Yes! More of that stuff!”

With all the pushing, shaking, pulling, and running that was going on, it made you wonder how the characters had time to have affairs in the first place. Speaking of which…

Not-So-Awesome: Where’s the passion?

Murder Ballad is the story of a “love triangle gone wrong.” One way it goes wrong is in the lack of passion among the characters. All of the characters had chemistry with one another, and it definitely shows, as they make out on the pool table, the bar, and everywhere in between.

But it may be the abundance of physical contact that dampens the passion. David Mamet says that he doesn’t ever write explicit sex scenes because it will take people right out of the story. I’m not sure I totally agree with Mamet, but he has a point. Murder Ballad’s characters make out so much that I marveled on how they were able to sing afterwards instead of marveling about their story.

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Another bit of marveling: Do they need understudies? I’m available.

The constant physical contact breaks the sexual—and dramatic—tension. It results in actions that are unearned, relationships that are undeveloped, and emotions that are expressed, but not felt. Which might be what Murder Ballad is about, after all.

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