The 39 Steps

Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy
At Kennedy Theatre, Progress Energy Center
Through June 19

Why can’t we call The 39 Steps, Patrick Barlow’s daffy 2006 stage adaptation of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock classic, new wine in old bottles?

For starters, the only jokes less than a half-century old in this comic send-up of the British crime thriller are the two local references that dapper leading man Robbie Gay lobs into the proceedings at different points, one more effectively than the other. This florid collection of situations, sight gags, one-liners and physical comedy (some of which were actually lifted, intact, from Hitchcock’s original film) decidedly careens toward the old school.

What ingenuity there is in this production lies in the plot, in which four actors attempt, in real time, to pull off a major motion picture with a cast ofwell, not exactly thousands (there are two leads, and only 20-odd supporting roles, outside of crowd scenes).

Under Richard Roland’s direction, The 39 Steps is not so much a tribute to poor theatre (made famous by Polish experimentalist Jerzy Grotowski) as it is a pastiche of cheap theater, largely rendered infamous by almost everybody else. For when a foot from the wings unceremoniously propels an upholstered chair on wheels across the stage at the first scene change, it’s clear that the production we’re seeing is somewhat lacking in infrastructure as well as cast. The point is only reinforced through several dozen technical “shortcuts” that riddle the melodrama’s two acts. Instead of offstage, industrial-size fans to simulate Scottish windstorms, actors madly flap the edges of their coats, skirts and lapels. Later, a painted length of PVC pipe stands in for a railroad trestle that audiences may remember from Hitchcock’s film. But cheapness, as stage vets know, isn’t just reflected in a distinct lack of setting. It’s conveyed in blown tech cues as well: a stage phone that rings again after the receiver is lifted, or the sound of a third smack across the face, when the heroine only struck the man twice. You get the picture.

Robbie Gay, Betsy Henderson and Jesse Gephart indulge in a broad range of stock characterizations. Gay is Richard Hannay, the devil-may-care central character and narrator; Henderson is femme fatale Annabella Schmidt and, later, the squabbling love interest Pamela, while Gephart obliges with a number of supporting roles, including the fez-wearing heavy, Professor Jordan. Jason Peck mines his supporting characters a bit further, as a seizure-prone Mr. Memory and in a memorable quick-change scene where he alternates between a paperboy and a constable.

The only time the production momentarily sputters is when the staged theatrical mistakes seem to be anticipated by the cast. That’s one of the reasons comedy is hard; if a “mistake” doesn’t read as one, it isn’t. For the rest, The 39 Steps reads like a supersize version of the takeoffs once seen on the old Carol Burnett Show, albeit under drastically reduced circumstances. When it works best, the suspense it puts us in isn’t exactly Hitchcockian. It’s more about professional theatrical desperation on a shoestring budget. Instead of whodunit, this show should have us always asking, “How can they possibly do it?”