the 39 Steps (and stumbles)

March 4, 2010

On the whole, PCS and Nancy Keystone have delivered an entertaining, though instantly forgettable, production with The 39 Steps. This lampoon of Hitchcock’s 1935 classic (please see the film, it’s  sexy and fun and truly eccentric) was a hit on Broadway and in London (and is a crowd pleaser here in Portland) due to its inventive staging and cast of four (who play upwards of a hundred characters), and not because of its mostly dull and sometimes crude script. Where Hitchcock’s film is nimble and nuanced, the stage play is broad and obvious. Everything is pushed to the extreme and played to the hilt, and (especially in the first act) usually hits its mark, but as the play proceeds, the mania verges on monotony and the actors (and the production) start to lose steam.

Leif Norby (the only actor playing a single character) is wonderfully cast as everyman, Richard Hannay, unwittingly caught in an espionage involving murder, spies and top secret information. Norby plays Hannay with a light touch and a knowing wink, and though there’s no sexual chemistry to be found between he and Christine Calfas (somewhat undermining the fun to be had in the second act), he’s funny and skilled and anchors the play well. Calfas is wonderful. She’s sexy in a subtle, old Hollywood way. Her characters: Annabella, Pamela and Margaret, are the women who propel Hannay through the story, and as such, have a reality to them that is necessary and (very) welcome. Calfas has a wonderful sense of rhythm that is always surprising and very musical, and, most importantly, she waits for us to come to her (an approach that would have benefitted this production as a whole). She’s very nimble, both physically and verbally, and has a wonderfully readable face. At times though, the direction undermines Calfas’ subtlely built characterizations, as when, in the Pamela/Hannay scene on the fence, their handcuffed bodies knotting and unknotting over and under and through the fence (and going on far too long), forces Calfas into positions that display her undergarments (Madeleine Carrol would have objected). Ebbe Roe Smith and Darius Pierce, rounding out the cast, do most of the heavy lifting in this slapstick machine. Changing characters, sometimes mid-sentence, they both offer up priceless bits of hilarity, and a couple of wonderfully rendered characters (I especially liked their salesmen on the train). But then, any of the scenes that allowed for more than a microsecond of interaction and actual characterization instead of caricature, to my mind, worked better than the mugging and slapstick.

Too often Keystone let’s the physicality in the play run on. In the train “pursuit” for instance, what starts as a brilliant piece of staging, soon gets repetitive and muddled (much like the aforementioned “fence” scene). And, having set the pace at such an accelerated speed in the first act, after intermission, the second act is a bit of a slog. By the time the characters arrive back at London’s Palladium, Pierce (and especially Smith) are a bit spent. The clown scene recapping the entirety of the play is forced and trite, and Mr. Memory’s death scene seems truly a last gasp. Yeah, I was tired too.

The pacing and forced hilarity did wear me down by the end, but for the most part I was entertained and I truly admire the obvious talent on display in this mindless night of theater.

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