A quarter century before Cary Grant found himself pursued across the United States by enemy spies mistakenly believing him to be a CIA agent in Alfred Hitchcock’s classic thriller North By Northwest, a young man named Richard Hannay wound up in similar straits in The 39 Steps, one of the master of the suspense’s earliest hits, and one whose now iconic sequences include a train-top chase leading to Hannay’s daredevil jump onto the Forth Bridge, a seemingly fatal shooting of our hero midway through, hero handcuffed to Hitchcock Blonde heroine as he searches for a villain recognizable only by the missing top joint on one of his fingers, and a very public climactic scene at the London Palladium, much like the one Hitchcock later filmed at the Royal Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much.
Playwright Patrick Barlow’s 2005 adaptation of The 39 Steps (Hitchcock’s rewrite rather than John Buchan’s original novel) recreates each and every one of these classic Hitchcock film sequences live on stage, and does so with a grand total of four actors playing all of the film’s several dozen roles. Talk about a feat of theatrical wizardry!
Following its 2008 Broadway debut, which ran for nearly 800 performances and snagged a Best Play Tony nomination, followed by a National Tour which stopped at the Ahmanson two years later, the La Mirada Theatre For The Performing Arts and McCoy Rigby Entertainment now present The 39 Steps’ Los Angeles Regional Premiere, and under Jessica Kubzansky’s inspired direction, it is quite something to behold.
Though the La Mirada staging features Peter McKintosh’s Tony-nominated sets and costumes, everything else is brand spanking new, from cast members Andrew Borba, Dana Green, David McBean, and Matt Walker, to Steven Young’s lighting and John Zalewski’s sound design, to its direction by Kubzansky, who not having seen The 39 Steps either on Broadway or on tour, built the show “from the ground up”—quite a feat considering how much of what happens on stage isn’t in Barlow’s script. (In at least one instance, Kubzansky takes a pair of unseen characters referred to only briefly as “those two men over there” and puts them onstage, even going so far as to have the same actor play one character stage left and another stage right—simultaneously! Talk about ingenuity!) Oh, and Hitchcock fans will enjoy the production’s many witty references to A.H. classics like The Birds, Psycho, and North By Northwest, some of which appear to be Kubzansky additions as well.
In many ways, The 39 Steps proves a kissing cousin to the Sacred Fools’ multiple award-winning Sherlock Holmes comedy thriller Watson, in which Scenie winner Henry Dittman played half a dozen characters all in the space of a few dazzling minutes. The 39 Steps achieves what Watson did, recreating actions sequences that would cost millions upon millions on the silver screen at a tiny fraction of the cost, and does so with about a third as many actors as its smaller stage cousin. And whereas Watson was an original story, The 39 Steps has the added plus of our collective familiarity with the Hitchcock classic, as we watch a handful of actors recreate those iconic scenes with supreme imagination, pantomime expertise, and in one inspired sequence, shadow puppets.
Andrew Borba is Hannay and Dana Green the mysterious foreign brunette who talks him into taking her back to his flat following a shooting they have witnessed at a London theater. Versatile SoCal stage star Borba proves the perfect embodiment of a Hitchcock hero with his “dark wavy hair, piercing blue eyes, and very attractive pencil moustache”—an all-around terrific straight man to the zany mayhem around him. The marvelous Green doesn’t only get to play sultry (and German) as Annabella Schmidt. Once Hannay’s exotic visitor gets stabbed to death by a knife appearing seemingly out of nowhere, Green gets the plum assignment of doubling as icy blonde Pamela, the stranger on a train he ends up handcuffed to as enemy spies pursue them across Scotland, and also as Margaret, the comely young wife of a country farmer.
Still, it is Clown # 1 (Matt Walker) and Clown # 2 (David McBean) who luck out in the scene-stealing department as they bring every other character from the Hitchcock film to life, from vaudeville performer Mr. Memory to a helpful milkman to a charlady to a pair of lingerie salesmen to a police officer duo to a train porter to a paperboy to a Scottish farmer to a pair of pilots to a seemingly respectable (i.e. villainous) professor and his buxom wife … and that’s just in Act One. Walker is of course the brilliant star (and head honcho) of the renowned Troubadour Theater Company (aka the Troubies). McBean is a San Diego treasure (and Scenie winner) who auditioned at an open call and so dazzled director Kubzansky that she wisely took a chance on an L.A. unknown. Both are out-and-out brilliant, vanishing inside character after character, and in a number of instances making split-second back-and-forth transformations with nothing but a change of hat.
McIntosh’s scenic design takes us from Richard’s flat to a London music hall to an Edinburgh train to the Forth Bridge to the Scottish moors to a sheriff’s office to an assembly hall to a country inn and finally to the London Palladium, all of the above with only tables and chairs and boxes and ladders and oodles of imagination. As for McIntosh’s costumes, they are era-perfect treats, a number of which are designed to get donned and doffed and re-donned again in record time.
The Broadway production’s two Tony awards were given to its lighting and sound designers. Here those assignments go to L.A. theater design stars Steven Young and John Zalewski, whose work proves equally complex, ingenious, and award-worthy, as are Terry Hanrahan’s props and Kaitlin McCoy’s wigs.
William Coiner is production stage manager and Hanrahan assistant stage manager. Julia Flores is casting director, Buck Mason production manager, David Cruise technical director, and Gina Farina associate production manager.
The 39 Steps at the La Mirada Theatre is Los Angeles regional theater at its very best, made even more remarkable by the fact that a glitch-free Opening Night was achieved in a mere two and a half weeks’ rehearsal and a single preview performance. Let’s see Broadway try to match that!
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts, 14900 La Mirada Boulevard, La Mirada.
January 21, 2012
Photos: Michael Lamont