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The 39 Steps — Bristol Riverside Theatre

bristol highlandsIntense mystery and low comedy have been combining in Patrick Barlow’s stage version of “The 39 Steps” since Maria Aitken staged John Buchan’s cleverly plotted spy thriller in London in 2005.

Alfred Hitchcock may have started the comic infusion with his 1935 movie of Buchan’s novel that was issued the same year, four years before Great Britain and its allies would oppose Germany and its axis in World War II.

Stage renditions of “The 39 Steps” now have something akin with Zero Mostel performances. Aitken’s production started out measured, letting lighting be as much of the story as Barlow’s dialogue, and taking her comic cues from the music hall sequence near the top of the show. Recent stagings get broader and broader until the crux of “The 39 Steps,” the mystery, gets crowded out by comic business that borders on slapstick. The two parts of Barlow’s entertainment don’t blend as felicitously as when Hitchcock or Aitken was as the helm.

No matter. Audiences deservedly love the shtick, and “The 39 Steps” has become a popular entertainment that seems destined to haunt every regional theater in the English-speaking world. Audiences, Patrick Barlow’s banker loves you!

Of the dozen productions I’ve seen, Gus Kaikkonen’s for Bristol Riverside Theatre is the most unusual. It is uniformly well-acted by a gifted quartet that can create high drama while acing the farcical elements. Karen Peakes and Dan Hodge give two of the better performances I’ve seen in their roles. The pace moves briskly enough to remain entertaining as comedy and involving as mystery.  You care whether the lead character, Richard Hannay, succeeds in a dangerous and often thwarted mission. Costumer Linda B. Stockton and set designer Charlie Morgan are versatile in creating clothes and environments that enhance the jokes and the intrigue. The basics in Kaikkonen’s production are solid and in place to get “The 39 Steps” rolling smoothly.

But two odd things happen, the first encouraging, the second insuperable.

Following a brief, unnecessary, and fairly pointless opening that seems meant to clue you that all you are about to see is presented  by an improvisational vaudeville troupe, Kaikonnen settles into a fairly straight telling of “The 39 Steps.”

His restraint is the encouraging part. Matt Leisy, as Richard Hannay, sits in his London flat, as Barlow’s script dictates, and sips Scotch or some similar libation while relating, straightforwardly, the emptiness he feels since returning home to England from Canada. Hannay decides to pull himself out of his torpor by doing something recreational and mindless. He goes to the theater.

Not just any theater, a music hall. And not just any music hall, the London Palladium, a top-notch house equivalent to New York’s Palace on the American circuit.

The act, which we also see, is quite entertaining. It’s Mr. Memory, a fragile looking man who commits new facts to his remembered bank of information every day.

Mr. Memory is typical of ’30s vaudeville. He has a routine and stock patter that goes around his correct answers. His  act is rife with “Thank you’s,” said Cockney style as “Fank you,” and he follows each reply with, “Am I right, sir or madam?” before he shows his gratitude and moves on to the next question.

Kaikkonen and company remain on firm ground with this sequence. Dan Hodge is spot on as the Palladium emcee, and Adam Sowers had worked out a goofy routine in which he shows you the whites of his eyes while Mr.  Memory is summoning each answer, but it plays and seems authentic if not as funny as intended.

It looks from these scenes as if Kaikkonen is going to keep the outlandish to a minimum and concentrate primarily on Buchan’s espionage yarn.

This impression blessedly holds when Peakes, playing a German counteragent, Annabella Schmidt, triggers Hannay’s adventure by causing a ruckus at the Palladium and ordering Hannay to take her home to his flat.

Peakes is wonderful as Annabella. She plays her role with realism that hints at satire or comedy. She has you believing she is a spy and that what she has to do and impart is urgent. Again, I am celebrating Kaikkonen for minimalizing gimmickry and emphasizing a truly well-crafted and nail-threatening mystery. Peakes and Leisy even play a spate of double entendres deftly by letting the jokes work for them instead of pushing or overexaggerating  their gag lines.

Yes, I say. This “39 Steps” may not be as rollicking or camped up as others I’ve seen, but I welcome its austerity and attention to believability.

Oh, I wince when Hodge and Sowers, playing German agents tailing Annabella, seem too off cue when they scramble to come into sudden view every time Hannay looks into Portland Place through a shade Annabella asked him to draw, a shade that was the focus of its own bit of shtick, and not a very good one. In general, Bristol’s seems to be a “39 Steps” that respects it material and is going to keep you on edge with mystery and not rocking in your seat  by farce.

How soon am I deceived.

Hannay must escape, and though his way of getting out of one tight situation is quite clever and indicative of Leisy’s agility, a scene in which Hannay asks to change places with a milkman backfires, not because of Leisy or Hodge, but because it’s conceived too farcically but not at all wittily.

Lack of ready wit will plague the rest of Kaikonnen’s production. More and more, comedy and intrigue are blending, and more and more, the comedy seems self-conscious and haphazard while the intrigue always snaps one back to attention.

The self-conscious nature of most of Kaikonnen’s foolery, the idea that bits were laboriously thought up and staged more for the sake of adding shtick than organically radiating from a moment at hand, is crippling to the Bristol production. Rather than surrendering willingly to silly larks that obscure the seriousness of Hannay’s commitment, you begin to dread comic business because it seems so deliberate and forced. It’s as if Kaikkonen was aware that “The 39 Steps” is done these days as a farce and threw in a sight gag or two so as to go with the trend and not disappoint.

So few of the comic gambits work, it becomes embarrassing. Kaikkonen doesn’t seem to have a sure hand, a comic’s gift, for timing or orchestration of a routine. Hodge, when he gets the chance, tries to rescue his director by being a touch more fluid and nonchalant at farce than his castmates, but Kaikkonen’s ideas are not good or inspired enough to be worth his effort.

Hodge actually becomes the victim of one of the worst bits, one in which, as a Scottish sheriff addressing Hannay, he delays giving pertinent information by pausing after every three words to blow on his scalding tea before drinking it. Perhaps elsewhere in the production this gambit may have worked. I can see its comic merit. Unfortunately, like a baseball manager who knows a lot of plays but doesn’t know when to use which, Kaikonnen uses the cooling cup bit in the wrong place, a particularly irritating place in the script. The gimmick backfires on him.

So many times, shtick plays as gratuitous rather than as amusing.

Of course, there are some legitimate laughs. When Hannay and a woman to whom he becomes attached, Pamela Edwards, take stormy-night refuge at a remote Scottish inn, Hodge and Sowers have a field day playing the friendly and curious innkeepers. Hodge is especially good as a kind, but meddling, women who wants to make Hannay and Pamela comfortable but also wants to know the story of their alleged marriage.

Hodge and Sowers each devise a halting walk as they play aged organizers of a political rally and mistake Hannay for its guest of honor. The trouble is the walks, once seen, become tedious as the scene continues, and bits on which they must get on or off of chairs or a dais wear out their welcome with the second mincing shuffle. Where are Harvey Korman and Tim Conway when you need them?

A scene between Hannay and Hodge as the ringleader of a Third Reich spy network that wants to kite plans for a silent airplane engine to Germany from Britain plays well and finds the right mix of tension and comedy. So does practically every scene in which Karen Peakes plays Pamela Edwards. Peakes always seems to know what mood to be in or what attitude to take. She is also so realistic as Pamela, you admire actress’s skill at holding her character’s line through a spate of labored mayhem.

Peakes is also quite good as the young Scottish housewife who lives with her jealous husband is a remote highlands town.

Farcical moments are either lumpen or forced. Few have any élan at all. They don’t spring from the material. They seem to be thrown in for fashion’s sake.

Some sight gags manage to take hold, like station markers whizzing by when Hannay is on the lam and heading for a lightly populated place in Scotland. The problem is while that simple maneuver seems clever, the movements on the train and the frenzy with which Hodge and Sowers play passengers, platform vendors, and policemen is underorchestrated so a lot of fast-paced motion takes place but it never translates to well-packaged comedy. This maniacal but unfocused pattern continues throughout the production. Occasionally a bit breaks through but this is rare.

Kaikkonen even manages to confuse physical situations when he has a policeman handcuff Hannay to Pamela. Possibly for a laugh, but seemingly inept, the cop secures the cuffs in a criss-cross pattern. Leisy and Peakes figure out how to straighten the situation when they emerge from the police car, but it seems annoyingly off-putting when the cuffs are snapped. Even before that, my eye wasn’t buying the scene. When Leisy and Peakes got in the police vehicle, I immediately thought, “They’re in the wrong position.” That bothered me for the rest of the scene.

Creating the police car is mechanically clever, but as usual, the ingenuity used to conceive transforming odd chairs and a rostrum into a vehicle is wasted on the fuss that accompanies the execution.

Kaikonnen fares much better — much much better — in the scenes that relate to Hannay’s desperate mission. He limits the shtick in these passages and is adept at building tension, especially concerning whether Hannay will have enough time to keep future calamity from happening to Britain via the loss of its military secrets.

I have a habit of going overboard, and I don’t want to give the impression that Bristol’s “39 Steps” is unwatchable because it isn’t. It’s more misguided in terms of comedy.

Kaikkonen is lucky to have Dan Hodge, Adam Sowers, Matt Leisy,and Karen Peakes for his cast. Their attention to character detail often saves the day.

Leisy  has the perfect jauntiness for Richard Hannay. He displays a calm confidence and exudes the self-assurance and self-possession Hannay needs to persevere in his mission.

Leisy lightens Kaikkonen’s production by showing Hannay’s sense of humor, the pluck that got him out of his stay-at-home doldrums to go to the theater, and the drive that made his carry on Annabella’s mission once he realized its importance.

Leisy reacts well as Hannay. Best of all, he retains his composure at all times and is prepared to seize opportunities and stymie enemies.

Karen Peakes immediately finds the essence of her characters. Her Pamela is classic heroine who shows poise, intelligence, and outrage when warranted. She is also shrewd about keeping Annabella serious enough to make her credible.

Like Peakes, Dan Hodge differentiates characters well, and he has more than 40 of them to play. Hodge is neatly sinister as the leader of the spy ring that must stop Hannay before he exposes them.  He excels as a sweet, but provincial Scottish woman and as is properly officious yet inept as various police officials.

Adam Sowers retains a comic expression in everything he does. He both has and provides a great time, especially as a jealous, suspicious Scottish husband..

Comic imagination is lacking in Kaikkonen’s production, but acting, attention to mystery, and Buchan’s fine story rescue Bristol’s “39 Steps” in the end.

One idea of Kaikkonen’s I liked was having off-stage actors dancing with ’30s madness in shadow every time a door opened in a party scene. This wasn’t so much a funny as a classy touch and may show the genre in which Kaikkonen is more comfortable. After all, there has to be some reason New York’s Mint Theatre entrusts him to direct the works of the most underrated and unfairly anonymous playwright of the 20th century, Harley Granville-Barker on such a regular basis.

The shadow dancing could not have had such an impressive effect if it wasn’t for the lighting design of John Eckert.

“The 39 Steps” runs through Sunday, October 26 at the Bristol Riverside Theatre, 120 Radcliffe Street, in Bristol, Pa. Showtimes are 7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 2 p.m. Wednesday and Saturday, and 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets range from $46 to $36 and can be obtained by calling 215-785-0100 or by visiting www.brtstage.org.

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