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Theatre Review (LA): The 39 Steps Adapted by Patrick Barlow at the Ahmanson Theatre

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The website of the play The 39 Steps says the play represents “Hitchcock meets hilarious.” I don’t think there is a better expression for this totally zany production first imported from England and now from the Roundabout Theatre in New York.

The idea behind the play is to perform, nearly verbatim, the script of the 1935 adventure film by Alfred Hitchcock but with a cast of only four. The result is somewhere around Noises Off, The Goon Show (a famous radio show featuring Spike Jones and Peter Sellers), Monty Python, and Beyond The Fringe.

The timing is impeccable and must be performed exactly for the right effect. This takes enormous skill, not to mention technique, and luckily the current production at the Ahmanson Theatre has just the actors to carry it off. They are the marvelous Claire Bomwell, Ted Deasy (who reminds me of John Cleese), and Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson who play everyone else (some 150 characters). Ms. Bomwell plays three characters and lucky Deasy only one but the most elastic of the lot. They all must bend, twist, change clothes, change direction, turn ladders into a train, and turn four chairs into a set of epic proportions. The play is a tribute to both Hitchcock and the theatre.

In the course of the retelling of this old movie script, the author (he calls himself "adapter"), Patrick Barlow, mentions most of Hitchcock’s other films, always straight front in case we missed the reference. In one sequence Hitchcock himself appears in silhouette to tumultuous applause. The play is a tribute to the theatre too, because it is only in the theatre that this kind of fast-paced farcical acting works. And it is only in the theatre that so much can be made of so little using four actors and a few props.

The creative team, led by the inventive director Maria Aitken, deserve our respect and admiration. I recommend this to anyone who enjoys pure silliness and delightful theatrics. The 39 Steps plays at the Ahmanson Theatre until May 16th.

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