In most two-act plays, you rely on the second act to deliver the real goods, whether it’s the concluding heft of a drama or mystery, or the resolving laughs in a comedy. But in The 39 Steps now at Blank Canvas Theatre, many of the laughs and amazing stage effects are crammed into the first act. And that first act is worth the price of admission, all by itself.
This madcap, frenzied play is a spoof on the Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name, based on a novel by John Buchan. In this adaptation by Patrick Barlow, nothing is played for the chills that Hitchcock was so good at conjuring. Instead, three of the four actors play multiple roles, too many to count, in fact, as many of the Hitchcockian tropes are trotted out.
Clueless man swept up in intrigue? Check. Mysterious femme fatale? Check. The ever-present blonde? Check. Plus, there are fleeting references to many of Hitch’s movies that fly by if you’re not paying attention.
But that hardly matters, since this is all about laughs, which come fast and furious before the intermission. The story revolves around Richard Hannay, a mellow British chap who is bored with his predictable existence. Ha! Soon, he is embroiled in the murder of the sultry Annabella Schmidt, which he is blamed for, and he’s on the run. He discovers that the murder had something to do with ”the 39 steps,” and he has to ferret out the answer to save his life.
Most of the multiple characters he encounters are played by Clown #1 and Clown #2, in the persons of Kevin Kelly and Michael Prosen. Switching from entertainers to traveling salesmen to Scottish rustics, Prosen and Kelly craft a volley of distinct and interesting characters. Prosen is a stitch in several of these roles, nicely integrating his schtick with Kelly. But most of the heavy comedy lifting is done by Kelly, a clown par excellence, and he delivers laughs whether he’s bellowing or whispering, finding unique ways to move and comport himself in all his various male and female guises. He’s a freaking hoot.
The beauteous Rachael Swartz plays some (but not nearly all) the women roles, switching smoothly from one accent to another as her multiple characters tweak and tempt Hannay. Joe Kenderes handles his straight man duties as Hannay capably, but he often seems to indicate he’s in on the joke, revealing faint smiles as he’s being chased and tormented. Granted, it’s hard to keep a straight face when confronted with Kelly’s comical gyrations, but it’s necessary to make the comedy snap properly.
From a staging perspective, there’s a spectacular and witty scene in the first act when the performers fashion a train out of four wooden boxes. The projections, designed by Perren Hedderson, turn the stage into a steaming locomotive and then, in a flash, Hannay is dangling from the railroad tracks on a bridge over a river. Director Patrick Ciamacco, who doubles as the set designer, gets full credit for this jaw-dropping sequence.
Strangely, however, the second act feels several steps short of the wacky brilliance shown in the first part. The scenes seem overwritten and there isn’t the manic energy that earlier drives the show gloriously over the edge.
That said, it’s hard to find a whole show that’s as funny and engaging as the first act of The 39 Steps. It’s a treasure trove for Hitchcock fans, and everyone else for that matter.
The 39 Steps
Through March 19 at the Blank Canvas Theatre, 78th Street Studio, W. 78th Street, 440-941-0458.