By John Lyle Belden
The downside to classic old films is, well, that they’re old. There’s a good chance you’ve already seen them, maybe more than once, or at least have heard about them so much that you know their plots, including the “spoilers.” This is especially problematic for mystery thrillers, which rely on you getting surprised by that twist near the end.
To keep them entertaining, the trick with such well-worn stories is how they’re told. Case in point: Patrick Barlow’s manic re-imagining of master of suspense Alfred Hitchcock’s classic, “The 39 Steps.” This London and Broadway hit is now playing on the stage of Carmel Community Players in the Clay Terrace shopping center.
The dramatic elements of Hitchcock’s movie are still there: In 1930s London, a man attending a performance by “Mr. Memory” meets a mysterious woman who insists she go home with him, then reveals she is being followed. During the night, the woman is murdered and the man is on the run, trying to clear his name. All he knows is that secrets are about to be taken out of the country, and that the espionage involves a master spy with part of his finger missing and something called “The 39 Steps.”
So, that’s the plot, but even if you know all the answers, it’s still worth both your time and your dime (actually a bit more) to see Barlow’s version, brought to life by central Indiana actors Jay Hemphill, Libbi Lumpkin, Neal Eggeson and Craig Kemp, under the direction of Lori Raffel.
The delivery of the story’s scenes rely more on slapstick than suspense, combined with wink-to-the-audience use of stagecraft, where chairs become cars; trunks become trains; curtains and windowshades just hang in midair where needed; and a supporting actor inhabiting two roles slyly converses with himself.
Eggeson and Kemp are identified in the program only as “Clown 1” and “Clown 2,” nimbly taking on all the roles of people encountered by our hero, Richard Hannay, played dashingly by Hemphill. Both Clowns bring the funny as they propel the plot forward, including Eggeson’s gender-bending turn as a Scottish inkeeper’s wife, Kemp’s entertaining portrayal of Mr. Memory and the goofy chemistry between them as the thugs in pursuit of our hero.
Hemphill plays a Hannay who is at times blusteringly confused as to what is going on, and at other moments a little self-aware that he’s the hero of the play, balancing this dance with our expectations and the fourth wall perfectly.
Lumpkin – a fierce balance of beauty, brains and bravery – fills the pumps of both the murder victim and the woman Hannay ends up handcuffed to during one of his escapes. Even at her most irritating and irritated at the other cast members, she never loses her charm with us.
Aside from our foursome, credit must also be given to stage manager Mark Peed, whose necessary interventions add to the magic rather than distract. And watch for references to other Hitchcock classics hidden in the story.
Another fine feature at CCP is the availability of ice cream at the concessions during these hot summer weekends. “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” plays through Sunday at 14299 Clay Terrace Blvd., Suite 140, Carmel. Call 317-815-9387 or visit carmelplayers.org.
Review also in July 30 edition of the Greenfield Daily Reporter.