Alfred Hitchcock has been done to deathâ€”the remakes, the unofficial sequels, the countless references that have entered into our pop culture canon. So imagine my surprise upon seeing a Hitchcock adaptation that’s smart, funny, and well worth my while. “The 39 Steps,” now playing at the Curran Theatre, takes an early Hitchcock film and transforms it into a Monty Python-style romp. There’s new life in this story, from the clever use of pantomime and slapstick to the self-referential nods to other Hitchcock movies.
Without giving away too much of the twisty-turny plot, I’ll give you the basic set-up. (Which, of course, I also recounted when I previewed this show, but now I’ve seen it and can confirm its accuracy!) Richard Hannay is an average fellow who gets thrust into a life of spy intrigue when he meets Annabella Schmidt at a show. The mysterious woman goes home with Richard and ends up murderedâ€”but not before warning Richard about a terrible plot unfolding. Soon Richard finds himself on the run from the police and a covert organization known as the 39 Steps.
Here’s where the play deviates from the 1935 film. The movie is your standard Hitchcock thriller about a falsely accused man on the run. The play is a damn funny comedy. OK, yes, still a mystery with some fun twists, but at the end of the day, it’s more laughs than edge-of-your-seat suspense. And that’s fine. Few plays can accomplish the level of high-tension thrills that Hitchcock films are known for. It’s a smarter move to exploit those thrills for humor. And who doesn’t love a good comedy?
The other big change is a reduction of the cast to four very talented actors. Ted Deasy appears only as Richard Hannay, but the other three take on multiple roles. Claire Brownell is foreign spy Annabella Schmidt, the lovely but difficult Pamela, and brave farm wife Margaret. Meanwhile, Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson, listed in the Playbill as Man #1 and Man #2, take on all the other roles. (As you might suspect, they’re not always playing men.) This leads to some of the play’s most entertaining and effective moments, as actors switch outfits back and forth throughout one scene.
Whether you’ve seen the film or not, “The 39 Steps” is a sharp addition to the Hitchcock adaptation oeuvre. Of course, if you are a Hitchcock fan, you can also catch some of his movies (including “The 39 Steps”) at the Castro Theatre next week. But more on that later.
Photo by Craig Schwartz.