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Alfred Hitchcock's

The 39 Steps

13 March 2009 (City Center)

What did I expect the Broadway version of The 39 Steps to be? I can't remember. It would be Hitchcock, but it would be funny that was enough for me. If anything, I remember not thinking what to expect. My desire to see the show was conceived soon after it opened, when I  learned of the four-actor cast. This sounded both funny and Hitchcock, the latter because Hitchcock talked contemptuously about actors, and would have pretended to love the idea of making a movie with only four. (In Lifeboat, he came close.) I believe I heard someone say that the show was a "romp." All the better! Hitchcock is perhaps the greatest comedian among big-studio directors, all the funnier for the utter obliquity of his humor. His one overt comedy, Mr and Mrs Smith, gets darker and even meaner each time I see it. I love the movie, but I'm not sorry that there is nothing else like it.

As for Hitchcock's 39 Steps (1935), it is arguably his first canonical picture, a movie that everybody with even a halfway interest in the auteur must see. The next such movie, Rebecca, was made in Hollywood, and it takes full advantage of the production values that were always of paramount importance to Hitchcock. Such resources were not available in England in the mid-Thirties not to Hitchcock, anyway, so The 39 Steps, starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll (with a wonderful small part for the young Peggy Ashcroft), has an antique look, like an early automobile with no windows, or an early television with a tiny screen embedded in hulking cabinetry. Only five years separates The 39 Steps and Rebecca, but the later film looks at least ten years younger. The 39 Steps guilelessly suggests that one thing it has is plenty of room for "improvement," and that's where Patrick Barlow's adaptation comes in.

The stagy quality of the film which derives from the obvious theatrical flimsiness of its sets is easily captured in the Helen Hayes Theatre, with a sweet little proscenium arch flanked by two miniature balconies; the through the arch, we see the familiar brickwork of a Broadway backstage. (Also a set, however.) We're reminded even before the "romp" begins that Hitchcock's version is bracketed by theatre scenes, in both of which a character called Mr Memory performs before a raucous music-hall audience. But there's a deeper reminiscence, I think. The backstage wall is a lot more interesting than the real thing, with doors and hatches and other interesting accoutrements that draw us in. No matter how many times we've sat by as the bare backstage of a theatre was made to stand in for absent sets, the backstage set here will remind anyone who has had anything to do with an amateur theatrical of the shock of breaching the stage's unguarded moments, when the show isn't going on. In short, the set fairly screams, "Let's put on a play."

Back in the day, The Carol Burnett Show staged a series of immortally comic parodies of classic Hollywood dramas, notably Mildred Fierce and Went With the Wind. The secret ingredient in these productions was the trick of having the characters say and imply things that, in the days of the Production Code, could be presented only in embalmed form. Thus Starlett could be openly hostile to Melody, suggesting that, since the punchbowl needed sweetening, her rival should just stick her head in it and Melody (Dinah Shore!), dumb enough to take Starlett literally, would do exactly that. Beyond parodying specific films, the skits satirized Hollywood movie-making generally.

One might have expected Mr Barlow to aim for something similar, but satire is definitely not on his menu. Nor is parody. The joke in Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is in the attempt of a cast of four (three men and a girl) to mount a conventional motion picture. It's not that they can't; it's that they're so determined to try. Consider the lamppost. Early in the action, the lady spy, Arabella Schmidt, goads Richard Hannay, her blithely clueless host, to check out her wild story by looking to see if two men are standing at a lamppost on the opposite street corner. Of course, she's right. When Broadway's Hannay lifts the shade in the makeshift window somewhat backstage, two men in fedoras and trenchcoats run on from stage right, upstage, carrying a lampost as if it were a lance. They stop on a dime and hold the lamppost erect. The lamp lights and the men turn their faces down just like the suspicious-looking bad guys described by Arabella. When Hannay drops the shade, the men shoot off with their prop in less than five seconds. The stunt is repeated and then, milking the gag for all it's worth, Hannay approaches the shade for a third glance. The men rush on like clock cuckoos. But Hannay changes his mind, turning away from the shade. The men rush off, radiating irritation.

And so it goes. One of the drollest bits is the simulation of a rocking railway coach on The Flying Scotsman. Hannay and two commercial travelers gently spin in their seats, just broadly enough to get a laugh. It's that they're doing it at all that's funny. They have breached the fourth wall of the theatre, but instead of covering it with a movie screen they've gone in the other direction, toward the land of mime. When Hannay takes refuge in the crofter's cottage in Scotland, a great deal of effort is put into simulating the fierce Highlands wind. Marcel Marceau would have been proud.

Sean Mahon, a well put-together young man who does a rather better job of playing Hannay than Robert Donat did, acts the hero throughout. Francesca Faridany plays the three young-woman roles (Arabella, the Peggy Ashcroft part, and Madeleine Carroll's Pamela) made up to look like Marlene Dietrich, who starred in the decidedly uncanonical Stage Fright. Jeffrey Kuhn and Arnie Burton play all the other parts. As they all but somersault their way through the endless series of acrobatic larks, they betray another source of inspiration for Mr Barlow's re-think. When the two men play women the innkeeper's wife, the wicked professor's wife - the drag of their wigs and dresses is completely undercut by men's shoes, socks, and (gasp) garters. This is the world of the undergraduate rag, of female impersonation intended not to imitate women but to make fun of them. It works, because Hitchcock seems to have been doing much the same thing in his film. His innkeeper's wife is played by a woman, certainly (Hilda Trevelyan), but she is as comically abstract as one of Walt Disney's fairy godmothers. The idea that such an old auntie can imagine romance, much less remember it, is self-evidently hilarious to all young people, who naturally believe that sex was invented five minutes ago, when they first heard about it. (As indeed it was.)

All the actors are capable athletes, but Mr Kuhn and Mr Burton go at their duties with a manic zeal that obliterates the idea that what we're watching is, essentially, an underfunded substitution. We forget that we're not watching a movie. Because in fact we're watching a circus a circus for adults who have long since ceased to find elephants and tigers extraordinary, and who won't mind putting the tightrope walk in a bit of comic context. The 39 Steps isn't anything so undisciplined as a "romp," after all; it's a comedy-ballet. I can think of two other examples of this genre that I've seen in the past few years: Boeing Boeing was certainly one, but so was the Broderick-Lane revival of The Odd Couple, a production that struck me as deeply choreographed. Yoking brilliantly-executed pratfalls to winking, "sophisticated" allusions (Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps sports a silhouette of the Loch Ness monster and one of Sir Alfred, too, of course) makes for a treat that has something for everybody inside your head.

One does not have to presuppose a perfect world to imagine one in which this new, improved version of a creaky old movie becomes a staple of drama departments. The production might be faithfully replicated, or it might serve as a point of departure for even more minimal conceptions. The important thing is the skills that actors will need to make it work. Having succeeded at either one of the Two Men (and what fun a reversed production would be, with one guy and three women), a player would be capable of anything. (19 March 2009)

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