Sunday, October 17, 2010

review of *The 39 Steps*

at Interplayers through Oct. 30

It's funnier if you're funny without showing us that you know you're funny, you know?
The 39 Steps — a spoof of the veddy British 1935 spy-caper movie by Alfred Hitchcock, performed with just four actors with a lot of props and quick changes — certainly signals its comic intentions.
An innocent man gets himself ensnared in international intrigue, chased over loch and heather (he's in Scotland, you see) by policemen and double agents and a self-righteous woman who refuses to believe in his innocence. Of course, we never really think that our hero, the dapper Richard Hannay (Damon Mentzer) is going to succumb to the nefarious forces that encircle him — he has such an awfully dashing mustache, don't you know — but we're also not entirely sure how he's going to escape, either, especially with an uncooperative blonde handcuffed to him.
And it's a hoot. When the newsboy transforms into a Bobby with nightstick and then a traveling underwear salesman — all with switched hats and accents — it's delightful to watch in a clap-your-hands, jack-in-the-box surprise kind of way. When Jerry Sciarrio (in one of several dozen roles as Clown No. 1) transitions from a dignified lord of the manor to a goose-stepping, lunatic Nazi, the threat's rendered comic and harmless even as we giggle over the actor's venture into make-believe. Things happen fast, and we're invited to join in the fun: chairs become car seats, picture frames are held up to become escape hatches, audience members are invited onstage while the overworked actors rest for a while in front-row seats.

Michael Ward's set design rims the stage with bric-a-brac, and director William C. Marlowe has committed his show to a grab-a-prop-and-run operation.
Too often, the props get in the way. Oh, Marlowe loves his sight gags and sound gags — holds them and clutches them, crushes them in his arms, then ravages them and leaves them quivering, still barely alive, in the dust. In particular, the thunder-and-lightning gag that accompanies one of the play's key phrases became, with repetition, less amusing than annoying.
The action is set in the 1930s, with the Nazis threatening Europe. But when Marlowe camps up the proceedings with a disco ball or the Jeopardy theme, there's a sense that we're being condescended to — as if we couldn't enter into the comic spirit of a romp through pre-war British culture without a wink and a nod. It's funny — Hannay is faced with a serious dilemma, and that familiar quiz-show music comes over the speakers — but it's funny in terms other than the show itself is funny. And Patrick Barlow's frenzied four-actor adaptation — which refines two actors' reinterpretation of three movies' worth of revisions of the original novel — has plenty of laughs to offer all on its own, thank you very much indeed, sir.

In fact, the biggest laughs in Interplayers' production of The 39 Steps — and there are many bright spots in this show — land not because of all the wigs and props and furniture, but because of the acting. In particular, in the three-way role of femme fatale, innocent farmer's wife and skeptical love interest, Elisha Gunn is a revelation. With the opening scene's German woman of mystery, Gunn wrests multiple meanings out of single words: When she comes on to Hannay, she turns the final three syllables of "You wish to be — in-VOL-ved?" into a symphony of seduction, rubbing her thigh once up, once down, no more. She's a woman on a mission. She rolls the R's in "Richard" for so long that his name seems to tumble out the door and come back in again. For a melodramatic scene involving murder, she flops around like a stuck fish (and Marlowe hits upon an ingenious way of getting one character out from beneath a corpse). In the second act, when her third character is angry about being forced into proximity with Hannay, Gunn spits out a feigned agreement of "Yes, darling" with about six different kinds of irritability and rancor in it.
In a later sequence, as a dour Scottish farmer's wife, you might think Gunn is overdoing the skipping, barefoot ingenue bit until it pays off when she curls her toes around a chair leg, then extends them over to Hannay's side of the table for a flirty game of footsie — all while her Calvinist husband (Damon Abdallah, in one of his Clown No. 2 roles) intones a parody of saying a guilt-ridden grace, imploring our "unforgiving Father" to "beat our gluttonous thoughts and lash our lustful desires, as with a three-forked flailing stick, pressing our bestial noses to the grindstone...." Self-disdain like that is funny, especially when we see "lustful desires" going on under the dinner table.

But when you overload a show with stage business, verbal humor like that can get overshadowed. Hannay has a naive quality — slow to realize that he's been seduced or duped, easily distracted by trivia, rather vain about his appearance, willing to believe the best of others even when they're schemers — and Mentzer has pipe-clenched-in-teeth, grinning quality that lives just down the block from Dudley Do-right. His little witticisms and side comments sometimes get squashed by the insistence on scampering over to fetch the next prop.
The scene when Hannay is pushed into public speaking is an example of Marlowe's comic business over-burdening the text. The joke lies in Mentzer's character being caught in a pickle and understandably nervous about it; but a pop-up, roll-over bit of physical comedy detracts from the scene's focus (though it has to be admitted: Mentzer changes pace during the speech, improvising a rousing ovation that electrified the opening-night crowd).

Meanwhile, the two clowns generate a lot of verbal jokery. Abdallah gets comic mileage out of two different characters by making them, in different ways, almost completely unintelligible. Sciarrio's doddering hotel keeper and insane Aryan form hilarious contrasts. Abdallah can do both ends of a phone conversation; Sciarrio can imitate the ignition-cough of a '30s clunker starting up.
And this is the kind of show where the cues come in deliberately late: First you get the comic ineptitude, then you get a second joke out of the actors glaring at the sound booth. The 39 Steps proclaims its amateurishness for all to hear, though sometimes you just wish it would stop proclaiming and get on with the next chase scene and predicament.

All four actors have brilliant moments, and when they settle comfortably into the run, some of the timing issues (bobbled lines, cues that hit just a tad late) and diction problems (exaggerated German and Scottish accents aren't funny if they're completely indecipherable) will disappear.
Marlowe's 39 Steps is creative, inventive, rollicking. It just needs some editing: Sometimes, gags just need to be gagged.

(a shorter version of this review will appear on Oct. 21 in The Pacific Northwest Inlander)

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