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Saturday, August 28, 2010

Theater review

The 39 Steps.

In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock adapted John Buchan's 1915 spy novel, The 39 Steps into a film with the same name. It has been remade four times, in 1959, 1978, and twice as a BBC television movie, in the late eighties and in 2008. All of which demonstrates that this is a story that catches the imagination. In 2007, the film was adapted into an award-winning four man play written by Patrick Barlow based on an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and directed by Maria Aiken. The play continues to run in London, and 13 other countries. It closed earlier this month, after a successful seven year run on and off Broadway.

The plot of The 39 Steps is classic Hitchcock, and contained a theme we fans are very familiar with; the innocent man on the run. The subtle humor of Hitchcock's film, however, has been expanded here. The mystery has morphed into a comedy. Luckily, Patrick Barlow, who adapted the film, has stayed true to the story, written by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay, and Alma Reville (aka Mrs. Alfred Hitchcock). I like to think Al would appreciate it's self-effacing humor and especially the clever staging.

Modern audiences will have no trouble relating to the lead character, Richard Hannay, played by John Behlmann, who involves the audience members in the action by speaking directly to them. From his monologue in the opening scene to the moment when he's confronted by his first dead body, his timing is flawless. Whether he's opening a door against a strong Scottish wind, or falling, in slow motion, from a bridge, he handles the physicality of the role with deceptive ease. Kate MacCluggage played all three of the stereotypical female leads charmingly: the melodramatic spy, the shy country maiden, and Hitchcock's favorite romantic interest: the icy blonde. The other two actors play dozens of other characters: policemen, spies, double agents, villains, henchmen, local politicians, both train conductors and passengers, and players in the play within a play, to name but ten. Mr. Jamie Jackson and Mr. Cameron Folmar are fantastic, becoming characters in the blink of an eye, and then switching identities even more quickly, or becoming furniture, props, or whatever else is necessary.

One doesn't need to be a fan of Hitchcock or the film The 39 Steps to appreciate the play, but I think familiarity with the film's creator adds a level of pleasure to this theatrical version. There are many visual and verbal references not only to Hitchcock's 39 Steps, but his other films, whose titles were included in the fast-paced dialogue with a wink and a nod to the audience, including Rear Window, North by Northwest, and Strangers on a Train. Barrow even managed, during a brief shadow-puppet scene, to include Hitchcock's silhouette, a bow to the director's signature move of making a cameo appearance in each of his films.

More importantly, Barrow echoed Hitchcock's dry wit and biting sarcasm as well as the clever irony that informed Hitchcock's characters' development. The play lacked Hitchcock's subtlety, such as the hints of improprieties that the director included in his films, including in The 39 Steps itself, that were forbidden by Hollywood's Production Code until the mid-1960s. The play is so true to the movie, though, that Hitchcock's creation is still clearly the heart and soul of the piece.

For those who can't see the stage production, the film it is based on is available for rent and for sale, and, of course, there are all of the director's other movies. I firmly believe there's a Hitchcock film for everyone, from fussy old ladies to jaded teenagers. From Hitchcock's favorite Shadow of a Doubt, to psychological suspense such as Spellbound and Vertigo, to human dramas such as Life Boat, somewhere in the fifty (Yes, Fifty!) films he made during his career, you should be able to find your own favorite.

Post Script. Why I wrote this review.

I really enjoyed the play. And even though it's closed here in New York City, it's still out there, in other towns, in other countries. I hope if you get a chance you'll go see it. Additionally I'm just a huge fan of Hitchcock's genius.

Alfred Hitchcock was born in 1899, the same year as my mother's mother, the woman I'm named after. Roberta Primm and Alfred Hitchcock shared a birth year, and absolutely nothing else. He was a white man born into a middle class family in the heart of the British Empire at it's height, she was a young black woman born to an ex-slave in the rural American south. They were born not only oceans, but worlds apart.

I never met my grandmother, but I know from my mother she was a very 19th century character -- plucking chickens and baking her bread each day, sewing all of my mother's clothes. She attempted to go to nursing school, but didn't manage to graduate. Hitchcock studied to be an engineer. In my mind, I connect them because I think of them both as producing remarkable 20th century innovations. My grandmother raised my aunt and my mother, who became a doctor and a lawyer respectively, and became two of the earliest examples of modern professional black women. Alfred Hitchcock invented techniques for filming movies.

My aunt and my mother didn't influence a lot of people that I know of besides my sister, and myself, while Hitchcock created a directorial style that influenced modern filmmaking. But, however indirectly, my grandmother was an influence in my life, and so was he. I know that it's a stretch to conflate the achievements of these two very different individuals, but like anyone in love, I started wondering what I and the object of my devotion might have in common. When I found out he was born in 1899, I thought, "There! That's it!" Hitchcock and Grandma.

1 comment:

  1. Roberta, I think 39 steps is still playing. Last Saturday David Rothenberg on WBAI offered tickets to it for this week.
    I love your article. Found it very interesting. Of course comparing Roberta Stephens, my mother, to Hitchcock is ridiculous. I too feel that she was a great woman but your attempt to hook them is really extreme. That's AOK with me though.