Surflight Theatre will present the madcap comedy “The 39 Steps” on Sept. 12, 13, 14 and 15 at 8 p.m. and on Sept. 13 and 16 at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $39 for adults and $29 for children 12 years of age and younger. They may be purchased online at surflight.org, by phone at 609-492-9477 or at the box office in Beach Haven.
“The 39 Steps” is based on a 1915 novel, penned by John Buchan, a Scottish diplomat who would become the governor general of Canada, and the resulting 1935 movie directed by Alfred Hitchcock. But “based on” is sort of a misleading term – no, make that very misleading – when it comes to “The 39 Steps.”
Buchan was a best-selling writer of adventure fiction. Hitchcock, of course, was known as “the Master of Suspense.” But Patrick Barlow, who adapted the novel and film into the play in 2005, is a comedic actor and playwright. He’s best known in England as his alter ego, Desmond Olivier Dingle, who founded the National Theatre of Brent, a mock two-person theater troupe that performs parodies.
Barlow/Dingle shares a peculiar sense of humor that is immediately identifiable as British with such more well-known performers as Benny Hill and, even more, the Monty Pythons. Indeed, Surflight is promoting “The 39 Steps” this way:
“Mix a Hitchcock masterpiece with a juicy spy novel, add a dash of Monty Python and you have The 39 Steps, a fast-paced whodunit for anyone who loves the magic of theatre! This 2-time Tony and Drama Desk Award-winning treat is packed with nonstop laughs, over 150 zany characters (played by a ridiculously talented cast of 4), an on-stage plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and some good old-fashioned romance!”
One actor will play the leading man of the novel and movie, Richard Hannay, an everyman who, as so many everyman Hitchcock characters – think advertising executive Roger Thornhill in “North by Northwest” – finds himself smack in the middle of a web of intrigue and murder. An actress (although the roles are sometimes played by a man) will play the three beautiful women with whom Hannay becomes involved (gee, Cary Grant had to make do with just Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest). The other two actors play the scores of other roles, including heroes, villains, men, women, children and even inanimate objects, making super-fast minimal costume changes and sometimes playing more than one character at the same time.
In case you’re not familiar with Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” don’t worry. Barlow threw in plenty of allusions to “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.”
Obviously things are going to get crazy on stage. So a review of the underlying story plot is necessary.
Hannay, a Canadian visiting England, is bored and decides to visit the theater. While there he meets a beautiful woman, Annabella Schmidt, who causes a commotion when she fires a revolver into the air in the darkened theater. Schmidt tells Hannay she did so to cause a diversion so she could escape two men who are trying to kill her. She’s a secret agent from an undisclosed country who is being followed by an opposing agent who is “on the point of obtaining highly confidential information vital to your air defense.”
She begs Hannay to take her home with him. Once there Schmidt tells him that she must get to Scotland to meet an Englishman who lives in “a big house” called Alt Na Shellach to gain information about a spy organization called the 39 Steps, headed by a master of disguise who can only be identified by a missing tip of a pinky finger. She’s exhausted. Hannay offers her his bed, falls asleep in a chair and wakes as a husky-voiced Schmidt approaches him apparently seeking sex. But she’s husky-voiced for another reason – she has a knife sticking in her back!
Hannay takes up the dead woman’s cause and heads off on a train to Scotland (where the two actors identified as “clowns” play ladies underwear salesmen, policemen, paperboys and train porters). It is only when he sees a salesman reading an evening newspaper that he discovers he’s suspected of Schmidt’s murder and is being sought by the police. They search the train and discover him. He escapes after a perilous and hilarious chase, makes it to the Scottish moors and ends up at a poor crofter’s cottage where he immediately becomes romantically involved with the crofter’s beautiful wife, Margaret.
The police arrive on the scene again, and once again Hannay escapes, though the “rear window.” As he races across the moor he is spotted by two pilots on a primitive Tiger Moth airplane:
PILOT 1. There he is. Over there!
PILOT 2. Which direction’s that then?
PILOT 1. North-by-Northwest!
Oh yes, Hitchcock’s movies make as many verbal cameo appearances as the master did visual cameos in his many films.
Hannay makes it to Ala Na Shellach, where he meets a Professor Jordan, who happens to be missing the tip of a pinky. Jordan turns out to be a German, the man who founded the 39 steps. He shoots Hannay in the heart and then dances in glee with his wife as the mansion burns to the ground.
And that, folks, all takes place in Act 1!
— Rick Mellerup