If you have ever wondered what a Monty Python film might have been like if Alfred Hitchcock had directed it, go see The 39 Steps, the wacky send-up now onstage at Theatre Arlington.
This show, which enjoyed great success in London and New York before moving to regional and community theaters, takes a 1935 Hitchcock spy thriller and retells it with a cast of only four. And, while this bit of manic foolishness sticks to the plot, it is all played as a spoof of bygone narrative and acting styles.
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from John Buchan's novel and Hitchcock's film, the play takes all the tension and mystery of this film from the Master of Suspense and turns it into broadsided, often slapstick, comedy.
Theatre Arlington's production, directed by Andy Baldwin, has plenty of fun with the show (it's hard not to) and adds a few clever touches (such as a projection screen at the back of the stage that is used to great effect). Baldwin especially accentuates the abundant physical humor in this tongue-in-cheek romp.
Baldwin's quartet of players, taking on the daunting task of re-creating a story with more than 100 characters, attacks the material with appropriate glee.
Especially strong are Shane Strawbridge and Eric Dobbins. The actors appear in the program as only "Clown 1" and "Clown 2" because they play so many roles. Both do a stunning job with their quick costume changes and come up with a wide variety of British accents to keep their characters distinct. And the hulking Strawbridge particularly draws laughs with the battleship-size female characters he portrays.
Ben Bryant is solid as a rock as Richard Hannay, a typically Hitchcockian innocent man-wrongly-accused who unexpectedly finds himself awash in spies, plots and secret plans. He clearly understands that Hannay must be played completely straight in order to ramp up the comedy around him.
Lynsey Hale plays the key female roles (mainly a femme fatal spy early on and an accidental love interest later). Her performance is less satisfying, because she delivers the lines but not the characters. It is hard to overplay the campiness of this script, but Baldwin is sometimes guilty of doing so, especially in regard to how he guides Hale's performance.
So this is not the best 39 Steps I have seen. But that is probably because the others were so outstanding rather than any shortcomings of this production being that major.
This is such a foolproof farce that so long as the cast and crew give it their all, as they largely do here, it works just fine. You will laugh a lot and have the added pleasure of sitting through an entire Hitchcock work without being scared to death a single time.