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The 39 Steps — Theatre Horizon

untitled (40)As the music hall novelty performer, Mr. Memory, is introduced in the Theatre Horizon production of “The 39 Steps,”  you hear Gounod’s “Funeral March of the Marionettes” and see a shadow of actor Adam Altman, standing in profile, stomach distended, imitating the great one himself, the ultimate director of movie and television mysteries, Alfred Hitchcock.

Altman’s portly silhouette is not the only homage to Hitchcock in director Matt Pfeiffer’s staging. Birds threaten the leading lady, played by Genevieve Perrier. The hero, Richard Hannay, must flee from two bi-planes that are pursuing him north by northwest. ”  Bernard Herrmann’s grating “Psycho” score is played when sharp objects ranging from knives to meat cleavers are revealed. One character makes a pointed reference to a “rear window.” And Hannay, acted by Damon Bonetti, can’t figure out why he can’t stop whistling Gounod’s famous tune.

Pfeiffer seems open to letting any whim he or his cast had remain in Horizon’s free-wheeling production. The piece is more than a little bit overloaded, especially when you consider Maria Aitken’s quick and efficient London and Broadway mounting of Patrick Barlow’s farcical take on Hitchcock’s 1935 spy thriller. Barlow and Aitken are augmented by all kinds of sight gags, ad libs, puns, and extra mayhem.

No matter. Though Pfeiffer’s “39 Steps” may amble on for an hour more than is expected and rarely even attempts to foment suspense or mystery, let alone the idea that Hannay or his companions have an urgent mission and may be in real danger, it is good-spirited and provides oodles of fun, plenty of well-earned laughs, and even some groans of the variety that express appreciation for a cheap joke rather than boredom or disgust.

Pfeiffer’s “39 Steps” is anything but boring. Though inefficient, it sails by like a comic comet and invites you to enjoy its whimsy and the cute touches Bonetti, Perrier, Altman, and Steve Pacek give their characters, especially Altman and Pacek, who assay several dozen types ranging from the robotlike Mr. Memory and desperate spies to endearing Scottish innkeepers and nonchalantly diabolical killers. Comedy is Pfeiffer’s aim, and he and his troupe supply it in great quantity, keeping the entertainment level high and the creativity admirable. Mystery lovers are to be forewarned they are not going to find much intensity from this Hitchcock derivative, but fans of farce will have a glorious field day at Theatre Horizon through June 8.

Hitchcock’s movie inspires the comic tone, breakneck pace, and hefty use of caricature found in Barlow’s adaptation. In spite of the importance of Richard Hannay’s mission, and the peril inherent in both misguided police and deadly earnest Third Reich espionage operatives working to prevent him from completing it, “The 39 Steps” is jauntily amusing, its seriousness undercut by the fun Hitchcock has with various British types and the suave way Robert Donat approaches the dangerous situation in which he unwittingly lands.

Richard Hannay has just returned to England after working for years abroad, perhaps as a spy, and wants some respite from the nights he’s spent alone reading in his small London bed-sitter. Looking for some mindless amusement, he opts to attend a music hall, London’s form of vaudeville. One of the acts is Mr. Memory who allegedly learns 500 new bits of information every day and stores them among the myriad facts he’s collected previously.

Hannay gets into the mood of the music hall and even asks Mr. Memory a question, one he answers correctly, leading to the vaudevillian bowing in delight and saying multiple “thank you’s” to his enthusiastic audience.

During applause for Mr. Memory, gunshots ring out, muffled by the cheers but noticed by Hannay and an intriguing woman in another box of the theater. The woman is nervous and claims to be in need of protection. She seeks it from Hannay and asks if he will let her stay at his flat, a request to which Hannay agrees. This is Britain 1935, so no hanky-panky ensues, but in the morning, Hannay finds the woman has been murdered, presumably by two men she showed him eyeing the apartment from a lamppost across the road.

The woman told Hannay the men are Axis agents who want to steal strategic defense plans to which they believe the woman has access. Authorities are not interested in the two men or Hannay’s story about espionage. They accuse him of the woman’s death and place him under arrest. He escapes but is forced to go on the run. Since his peace has been disturbed, and he is doomed to be fugitive, he decides to see if the woman’s story has merit and heads to an odd corner of Scotland, close to the moors, of course, to thwart the spy ring and save England. Rule Britannia!!!

Hitchcock, Barlow, and Pfeiffer all find comedy in the Hannay’s circuitous journey to Scotland’s rugged terrain and the interesting, bumbling, or quirky characters he meets en route.

Pfeiffer milks Barlow’s script for every ounce of farce in it, then adds some clotted cream of his own to make matters more hectic and more rollicking. The clothing, accents, facial appliances, and other elements that define the characters is extreme. Only Hannay and some of the more sophisticated women played by Perrier are allowed to don normal dress or speak in tones that don’t smack of Monty Python, Sid Caesar, Alec Guinness, and Joan Greenwood.

Altman and Pacek are at liberty to clown at will and look as if they were told the bigger and more drawn out their antics, the better.

Barlow assists Pfeiffer by calling the jack-of-all-characters Altman and Pacek play Clown #1 and Clown #2.

The actors have as much fun as they provide. Pacek is practically irrepressible. Give him a inch to expand a scene, and a mile won’t be long enough to contain it. Pacek likes to add physicality to his avalanche of accents and catalog of comic styles. Altman prefers to stand still and use exaggerated gestures, facial expressions, and voices to create his silly personae. Both approaches work because the two clowns never get so outlandish that they wear out their welcome. On the contrary, you want to see what bombast they are going to employ next. Damon Bonetti obviously enjoys his castmates’ tummeling because he often looks as if he is going to crack up at their inventions.

Bonetti has many chances to display his comic talent, but he does so while keeping Hannay suave, confident, and  self-possessed enough to remain in charge of his situation, even while the character is handcuffed and in police custody, and being the perfect B-movie lead who can face trouble without breaking a sweat. Bonetti’s Hannay has the nerve and verve of a hero from any era but looks particularly at home in the light brown suit and pencil mustache that denote a gentleman from the mid-1930s.

Genevieve Perrier plays a wide variety of women who can be exotic, floozyish, or smart to the point of exuding the accomplished young woman of pre-war England. Perrier has some chance to join Pacek and Altman in going over the top, but for the most part, she plays sensible women who have the confidence to act according to their own understanding or wits and give Pfeiffer’s production whatever conventional grounding it manages to muster.

Trying to list all of the bits and gags and jokes Pfeiffer and company reel off would be next to impossible. So many scenes led to good, solid laughs, it’s difficult even to separate some highlights.

One would definitely be Altman’s turn as a Scottish innkeeper who thinks she is aware of all that is happening with Hannay and the woman with whom he shows up sans luggage in the middle of the night and acts conspiratorially in what she regards as their behalf. Pacek seems to revel in a Boris Badanov image with a Conrad Veidt accent. His various cops, spies, and minions are all hoots. Bonetti and Perrier have some fine sequences played while they are linked by handcuffs. The entire cast seems to enjoy the bouncing of car, train, and tram rides.

Pfeiffer’s cast knows no restraint. Whatever they think of, they do. Bits spill into bits. Everything is played as large as it can conceivably be.

Luckily, Barlow intended for his take on Hitchcock’s movie to be a broad farce. I remember being confused for a minute in London when I couldn’t quite reconcile the tone of Aitken’s production with the material I knew from Hitchcock. Then a sight gag occurred, a broad one that involved lighting and had comic, and comic book, overtones. I said to myself, “Dope, it’s less a mystery than a farce” and enjoyed the ride from then on.

The ride at Theatre Horizon takes farce even more to heart than the London mounting. From the time you meet Perrier as the obviously continental woman Hannay meets at the music hall, you know outsized laughs are the objective.

I have no quarrel with Pfeiffer’s choices because his production was such fun. I would have preferred a little wider a nod that a thriller involving the wartime survival of Britain is unfolding. Even the most intense scene, when Hannay is shot a point blank range, fails to jolt the Theatre Horizon audience into any semblance of fear or worry that Hannay won’t succeed in his mission to thwart the Axis devils. Laughs abound, but they do so at the expense of all texture and intensity. You have to take Pfeiffer’s “39 Steps” as a total lark because that’s all it is.

That said, I must make it plain once again that I can enjoy a lark and that I was amused at all Bonetti, Perrier, Altman, and Pacek did. I was especially delighted when one of the actors scored a shrewd or arch line reading. My most satisfying laugh came from a retort one of Perrier’s outraged women launched at Perrier. “At last,” I thought, “a respone that comes from something interpreted directly from Barlow’s script rather than one that is triggered by an actor’s invention.”

The design by Samina Vieth, Janus Stefanowicz, Jessica Wallace, Anthony Giruzzi, Christopher Colucci, and Dan Perilstein is uniformly excellent and serves the frenzy of Pfeiffer’s staging. Stefanowicz seemed to have an especially good time conceiving the various costumes for Altman and Pacek’s alter egos. The suit she chose for Bonetti as Hannay is perfect. My one cavil will be the black wig and bulky dress Perrier wears in the Mr. Memory sequence. They make the foreign woman seem too oddly out of place and could make one wary of trusting her or assenting to give her refuge from her pursuers.

Colucci and Perelstein’s sound design had to contend with all Barlow demands in addition to the buzzing of crop dusters, the chirps of birds, and timely explosions of Gounod’s funeral march.

Whether Vieth, as set designer, or Giruzzi, as properties designer, constructed the bi-planes, dangled birds from a patchwork of sticks, and came up with using a music stand as a steering wheel, the result was hilarious.

Kitchen-sink comedy has an honored place in the theatrical firmament, and while I can’t give Pfeiffer’s “39 Steps” high marks for its dramatic qualities, I can appreciate and laud it for providing a non-stop good time and fostering a joyous feeling that lasted past the production.

“The 39 Steps” runs through Sunday, June 8 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, in Norristown, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Thursday, May 29 and Monday, June 2, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday, and 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, June 4. Tickets range from $35 to $31 with various discounts available and can be obtained by calling 610-283-2230 or by going online to www.theatrehorizon.org.

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