In the 1935 thriller The 39 Steps, Richard Hannay is the quintessential Alfred Hitchcock movie victim: Hannay is the wrong man, under suspicion for a murder that he did not commit. To Scotland Yard, there's not a shadow of a doubt that Hannay is the notorious Portland Place killer. He therefore must elude the pursuing police even as he in turn pursues a secret agent who is about to escape from England with vital data — and whose henchmen are also out to kill Hannay.
The current sprightly stage adaptation of The 39 Steps, which is now on view at the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, offers two hours of relentless zaniness. The movie was adapted to the stage by Patrick Barlow with both inventiveness and respect. One of the few sentences that has been omitted from Barlow's adaptation is the line when Hannay learns that the villain is headed for a vaudeville revue titled "Crazy Month." Perhaps that exposition is simply redundant, for it's going to be Crazy Month all January long at the Rep.
Of late the theater has been in a veritable frenzy over movies. Whereas it used to be that all successful stage plays were later adapted to film, nowadays it's movies that are receiving extended lives on the stage. What distinguishes The 39 Steps from other more pedestrian reincarnations is its determination — not to re-create Hitchcock's film but rather to use this vintage movie as a conduit through which to celebrate live theater.
At the play's outset, our protagonist Hannay (who doubles as the show's narrator) tells us that he is so bored, he needs a "mindless, trivial and utterly pointless" diversion. So does he go to a movie? No way! He attends the theater. And indeed this 39 Steps is both mindless and trivial — and its only real point is to keep the audience spellbound by shenanigans that would likely fall flat if seen on the screen.
Hitchcock himself likely would have been amused by this soufflé. Although pundits sought to find existential significance in his films, the director would have none of it. He freely admitted that he had no interest in content; his sole preoccupation was with the craft and technique of storytelling. In this stage version, craft equates to ingenious simplicity. It's fun to be reminded of how much can be accomplished with little more than a stuffed chair, a rolling door, a rear window (all the better for crashing through), a table, some footlights that get dragged across the stage on a rope. True, the stage is filled with flashy lights, piercing sound effects and an abundance of mist. But mostly it's left to four actors to tell the story.
Paul DeBoy, ideally cast as Richard Hannay, bears a striking resemblance to Robert Donat, who created the role on film. DeBoy even exudes Donat's gentle aura. Marina Squerciati enacts the three principal women: Annabella is the spy whose death sets the action in motion (and boy, can she slump over a chair), Margaret is the farmer's wife who shows kindness to Hannay, while Pamela is the young and innocent heroine who is drawn into the mystery after she and Hannay meet as strangers on a train bound for Scotland. The remaining roles (150, so we're told, but who's counting?) are played by Tyrone Mitchell Henderson and Michael Keyloun. Under Martha Banta's stopwatch direction, these two actors are responsible for keeping things buoyant — though I confess that for me it was during the "set pieces" where the action stops and we're expected to be dazzled by their agile cleverness that the evening became tiresome. This breezy exercise in sabotage is at its brightest when it's not patting itself on the back.
Although I did find it odd that the script omits the shot in which Hitchcock makes his obligatory cameo appearance, and although I was surprised by the elimination of the scene where Richard and Pamela hide behind a waterfall (an image rich with possibility), none of this really matters because the evening itself is devoid of matter. Whenever people challenged Hitchcock's direction, he would defuse the moment by saying, "It's only a movie."
To which we now can happily counter, "It's only a play."
Postscript from Dennis Brown: I confess there's something rich and strange about this review.