Jamie Jackson and John Behlman. Photo by Carol Rosegg.
BOTTOM LINE: While not quite as good as the original Broadway production, it is still pretty brilliant comic storytelling.
After over a two year run on Broadway, where it played three different houses, The 39 Steps tackles the off-Broadway world at its new home at New World Stages. The 39 Steps, which won the Olivier Award for Best New Play, is a comic spin on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller of the same name. The story centers around Richard Hannay (John Behlman) who meets a mysterious German woman (Kate MacCluggage) at the theatre. He takes her back to his apartment where she tells him about the mysterious 39 Steps. When she ends up dead, the murder is wrongfully pegged on him. Hannay must then flee to the Scottish countryside to try to find the secret behind the 39 Steps and clear his good name.
It's an epic tale that is told with great comic flare by only four actors and a few set pieces. The story requires a chase sequence on top of a moving train, airplanes, a parade of bagpipers, a party full of dancing party guests, and a moving car, just to name a few. The 39 Steps manages to create all this and more with the help of four very skilled actors backed by Tony Award-winning sound and light design (by Mic Pool and Kevin Adams, respectively). You go blindly with these actors as they shake their clothes to create gusts of wind and other such shenanigans, knowing that it is all in good fun. You are not going to see deep relationships between characters; it is about the comedy. Think Saturday Night Live meets Monty Python with a dash of over-the-top suspense. The 39 Steps never takes itself seriously, and the audience gets an inventive, light-hearted British comedy that gives a wink and nudge to the normal conventions of theatrical storytelling. As Molly said in her review of the Broadway production, "It's not about the story being told, it's about how the story is being told."
I saw this play during its original Broadway run and was utterly blown away. I thought it was so inventive. While zany and hysterical, it still maintained that understated British humor that I happen to love so much. But while I was excited to see this production transfer to a more intimate venue, I think something may have been slightly lost in translation. In this version of The 39 Steps, I feel that the actors sometimes try too hard, and that the bits are too big. At times, it teeters way over the line into melodrama, instead of embracing the fine line of understated British camp that the original achieved. While the original production delivered huge laughs, this one gave me a lot of smiles. That being said, I still had a good time. It might be a little unfair to compare the two productions, but what are you gonna do?
If you missed The 39 Steps during its original run, you should definitely check it out now. You will have a great time and marvel at some truly genius moments of physical comedy. If you have relatives visiting from out of town, The 39 Steps might just be the perfect choice. It's good clean British fun with some nostalgic throwbacks to other Hitchcock classics. The adaptation, direction, and design elements are truly top-notch. And while I didn't completely flip over this current production, I am very, very pleased that The 39 Steps has extended its life past its original Broadway run. On its own, it is a pretty tight production that will bring a smile to most people's faces. If you don't compare it to the original and let it stand as its own production, you will have a good time. It will no doubt continue to enjoy the enormous success that it has already garnered, and deservedly so. If you are looking for a charming, funny night at the theatre, head over to New World Stages and discover the secret of The 39 Steps.
(The 39 Steps plays at New World Stages, 340 West 50th Street. Performances are Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm, and
Sundays at 3pm and 7pm. The show runs 1 hour 47 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets are $69.50-$89.50. $39 discount tickets are available: use code TN39STEPS at broadwayoffers.com. $26.50 student rush tickets are available at the box office, two hours prior to the performance. For tickets call 212.239.6200 or visit telecharge.com and check out 39stepsny.com for more information.)