The 39 Steps

Raleigh Little Theatre
Through Oct. 28

Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 espionage thriller The 39 Steps is generally considered the first of the director’s great films. The movie introduces the Hitchcockian plot device known as the MacGuffin, in which the characters pursue a valuable but mysterious something whose real purpose is simply to move the story along.

In playwright Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation of The 39 Steps, presented by Raleigh Little Theatre, the MacGuffin is the spy story itself. The real thrills come from watching the very busy four-person cast play all the film’s characters, and from seeing how director Haskell Fitz-Simons translates movie language into stage language by way of inventive physical comedy bits.

Veteran Triangle-area actor Jesse Gephart plays our hero, Richard Hannay, a regular London bloke caught in the usual web of deadly intrigue. Gephart nails those weird verbal cadences of old movies and provides a solid center as leading man. Staci Sabarsky plays the story’s three main female characters, giving each a nice comic specificity.

Around them swirl the show’s busiest performers, Tony Hefner and Del Flack, who portray everyone and everything elsefrom squabbling innkeepers to German assassins to the occasional thistle bush on the Scottish moors.

In its best moments, The 39 Steps has the intricate rhythms and comic timing of old Looney Tunes shorts, and that’s meant as a very serious compliment. Hefner and Flack use layered costumes and multipurpose hats to execute elegant quick-change routines onstage, right in front of your eyes.

Everyone gets in on the clever staging. In a great train-top chase sequence, the performers pantomime motion and wind by leaning, lurching and fluttering out their jackets. Another scene uses puppets and shadows to recreate the famous crop duster chase from North by Northwest. In fact, the show’s biggest applause breaks came not after jokes but after particularly deft stagecraft like this.

Which speaks well of the comic choreography, but also reveals something about the show’s central weakness. As the play progresses, there is a growing sense of missed opportunity. Dialogue-driven jokes are few, far between and often pretty flat. Riffing on Hitchcock has been a cultural pastime for half a century now; you’d think the script could have wedged in a few more decent gags.

The trouble, I think, is that the play isn’t quite spoof, though it regularly presents as such. It takes itself a bit too seriously, especially in the second act, when the requirements of the mystery plot and the romance start grabbing focus. That’s the MacGuffin material, and it should only be used as necessary.

I’d have liked to see more of the conceptual funny business, like the running gag where Hannay makes his escape through whatever window is handy. (As in the film, our hero makes an improbable number of escapes by window.) Or the dexterous verbal exchanges concerning the impenetrability of rural Scottish brogue.

All the elements that are put in play work well togetherthe prop gags, the noir lighting, the costuming madnessand the cast works overtime to sell the jokes they’re given. They just need more to work with. The 39 Steps is funny, but it’s diminished by a nagging suspicion that it could have been a lot funnier.

This article appeared in print with the headline “On the run, with panache.”