There is spectacle and there is theater. Spectacle often works to dress up nothing to make it look like something, whereas theater, true theater, can take nothing and magically transform it into something. The 39 Steps is unquestionably theater as its cast of four plays fifty, changing worlds and characters with the use of hats, costumes, flashlights, shadows, and welcomed suspension of disbelief. Nearly a year after its opening, one theater later with another theater to go, this comedy defies gravity as it changes venues and continues to thrive. I recently revisited this production, having originally seen it shortly after its opening, curious to see how it was holding up. Aside from missing Cliff Saunders, who originated the role of Man #1, this current cast is keeping the spirit alive of a very fun and entertaining piece of theater.
Mocking its own lack of an elaborate set, Maria Aitken's direction makes comic use of minimalism, having her actors create with their actions rather than physical set pieces. The result is pure comedy dusted with wry British humor and Hitchcockian allusions: nudge, nudge, wink, wink. The simplicity of silhouettes projected on a white sheet gets the jokes across while being a joke in and of itself by the basic nature of the device. In this regard Aitken demonstrates imagination and a clear vision of how to turn Hitchcock into humor with a cast that knows how to bring it all to life.
Arnie Burton (Man #2) is the one remaining original cast member, which shows, as is usually the case with a performer who was there for the birth of an original piece. With snappy line deliveries and lightning-quick character changes he leads the way, setting the dizzying pace for this new cast at The Cort Theatre. Sam Robards gets off to a little bit of a slow start as Richard Hannay but drops into the drollery by emphasizing the character's ennui while occasionally breaking out as the actor frustrated with the absurdity of the pantomime. Frustration proves funnier for Robards. Jeffrey Kuhn faces the daunting task of replacing Cliff Saunders, who seemed crafted for the role. He holds his own, though at times it seems he can't help but try his hand at recreating his own interpretation of Saunders's original take on Man #1. Francesca Faridnay is a dishy Margaret, playing better as the ingenue in-over-her-head than the femme fatal of the play's beginning. Overall, a solid cast and a solid production.
With Xanadu gone, The 39 Steps is your best shot for a good time on Broadway with a show that doesn't take itself too seriously. With the budgets that go into shows today, it is all too often that inflated ticket prices go to pay for overblown sets and quasi-talented stars borrowed from film and television. The 39 Steps avoids both these pitfalls, employing stage actors who know their trade and a director who knows her craft, and succeeds in creating a play that is true to the spirit of theater the way it ought to be. With the blessing of Dionysus this production has made the seldom-successful jump from one house to another. Let's wait and see if the God of Theater continues to smile as they make a practically unprecedented second leap to the Helen Hayes in January. - C. Jefferson Thom
The 39 Steps is currently playing at The Cort Theatre: Tues. 7pm, Weds. - Sat. 8pm, Weds. & Sat 2 PM, Sun. 3 PM It transfers to The Helen Hayes Theatre starting January 20
Mr. Thom lives in New York City and walks dogs, writes plays, and loves dissecting pop culture.