Tuesday December 12th 2017

“The 39 Steps” reviewed by Jacob Davis

Highly Recommended ***** You don’t need to know Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps to find Patrick Barlow’s send up of it hilarious. His clownish adaptation has delighted hundreds of audiences on Broadway and is now causing plenty of chuckles and snorts in west Chicagoland under the direction of Buffalo Theatre Ensemble’s Kurt Naebig. This production marks the beginning of the Equity suburban company’s second season back at the College of DuPage’s McAninch Arts Center. Although the play can be done at break-neck speed in a way that is totally zany, the relatively large size of the McAninch stage forces Naebig to slow things down just enough to allow for some dramatic tension to build in a show that remains laugh-a-minute.

The play is set in 1935 (as opposed to the 1915 of the novel), when Canadian functionary-of-some-sort Richard Hannay (Bryan Burke) is feeling listless in London. He’s had nothing to do for a while, doesn’t enjoy his time at the club full of “colonial duffers,” and decides to cheer himself up by going to the theatre. There, he encounters a member of the German resistance who strongarms her way back to his house so she can hide from spies. She warns him that if she discloses to him anything about her mission, he will be irrevocably involved and in mortal peril. Hannay wants to help anyway, and sure enough, he awakes to discover the woman stabbed to death. With suspicion falling on him, he must make his way to a manor home in Scotland to protect a secret he doesn’t know the significance of from mysterious, ruthless enemies with a vast arsenal of disguises.

The character sheet is massive, but the cast has only four people. Burke plays Hannay throughout. Rebecca Cox plays the German counterspy and two other women Hannay encounters on his adventure. All the other characters are played by Daniel Millhouse and Matthew Singleton, who demonstrate incredible physical and vocal stamina, acting prowess, and comedic timing. They do everything from puppetry to Vaudeville-esque hat tricks to tumbling while supplying the color and tone of this play’s skewed little world. Their take on a doddering old couple of innkeepers is as amusing as their portrayal of a pair of jerks on a train and a battalion of bobbies in hot pursuit of Hannay. But they step in for dramatic roles, as well, always with a distinctive quirk which transforms their entire persona.

Burke and Cox are no slouches when it comes to comedy, either. Cox builds a different sort of chemistry with Burke in all three of her roles (alternately terrifying, tender, and combative), and Burke’s Hannay grows as a character as he learns to enact his own tricks and schemes. Choreographer Kyle Donahoe and fight director Neill Massey help Naebig to keep the play moving along while allowing it enough time to establish that the enemy spies should be taken a little seriously and that our heroes face enough opposition to challenge them. Interspersed are references to North by Northwest and other Hitchcockery which elicited some of the night’s heartiest laughter. Sarah Lewis’s imposing, yet spacious scenic design allows Naebig to get creative with placement of his actors and a vast number of props (Jillian Luce) and quick-changes (costumes by Mieka van der Ploeg). The night I attended, The 39 Steps was packed with an eagerly receptive audience. Barlow’s script is funny in its own right, but it takes a lot of talent to get all the different paces of humor out of it, as Buffalo Theatre Ensemble does.

The 39 Steps will continue at the McAninch Arts Center at 425 Fawell Blvd, Glen Ellyn, Illinois, through October 8, with performances as follows:

Thursdays           8:00 pm

Fridays                  8:00 pm

Saturdays            8:00 pm

Sundays               3:00 pm

Tickets are $37; to order, visit AtTheMAC.org or call 630-942-4000. Parking is available for free in the lot.

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “The 39 Steps.”

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