By John Lyle Belden
One of Alfred Hitchcock’s most acclaimed films is also one of his earliest successes. “The 39 Steps,” a 1935 spy thriller set in Britain, not only reflected the tensions of inevitable war with Germany, but also set the style and elements of most of his classic movies that followed. They include the innocent man on the run; settings in famous landmarks; the icy, beautiful blonde…
However, when you see “The 39 Steps” as presented by the Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre, you might think of another famous filmmaker – notably Mel Brooks’ “High Anxiety,” in which the comic genius thoroughly spoofed Hitchcock’s work. Yes, this thriller is a comedy! Adapted from the film (and the 1915 novel by John Buchan) by Patrick Barlow, from a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, the noir farce involves just four frantic actors and (like “Anxiety”) a few references to other Hitch classics.
Matt Kraft has just one role, but it’s a doozy. His Richard Hannay gets thrown into all manner of unlikely situations, including being set up for murder. To clear his name, he must rush from London to Scotland and back. Along his story, he encounters Haley Glickman as a doomed spy, a starved-for-excitement Scottish wife, and most importantly the woman who is determined to have him arrested, until she realizes the cops aren’t real. All other roles are played by Eric Reiberg and John Walls, in the program as Man #1 and Man #2, though the roles are also referred to as the Clowns. This latter label definitely works, as they slip into various characters and caricatures exhibiting Monty Python-level hilarity. For their part(s), Kraft and Glickman manage an excellent mix of slapstick and leading-couple chemistry.
Sharp direction is provided by John Michael Goodson (if he did a Hitchcock-style cameo, I missed it). Clever stage design by Ryan Koharchik has set elements all on rollers, so scene changes match the manic pace of the show.
No need to go all the way to the Highlands for this adventure, just as far north as Carmel, on the Tarkington stage at the Center for the Performing Arts through Feb. 19. For info and tickets, go to civictheatre.org or thecenterpresents.org.