DUMMERSTON — An engaging confection of romance, danger, and paranoia, The 39 Steps, a play by Patrick Barlow now in production by the Vermont Theatre Company, is based on the 1935 film that catapulted Alfred Hitchcock to international fame - and which, in turn, was based on The Thirty-Nine Steps, a 1915 novel by Scottish author John Buchan.
Though it flirts with parody, this hilarious play still manages to keep the audience on the edge of their seats.
While visiting London, Canadian Richard Hannay is dragged into international intrigue when a beautiful spy seeking his help is murdered in his apartment.
As depicted by the convincing Samuel Murphy, Hannay personifies Hitchcock's favorite plot device: the wrongly accused hero. Think of Cary Grant in North by Northwest or Paul Newman in Torn Curtain.
With the help of some fabulous wigs and well-tailored costumes, the talented Clare Margand inhabits multiple roles: murdered spy Annabella Schmidt, Scottish farmer's wife Margaret, and icy blonde love interest Pamela.
Margand is not alone in having multiple roles. Shannon Ward and Jonathan Kinnersley become literally dozens of characters - milkmen, farmers, innkeepers, police officers, cleaners, and traveling salespeople, to name a few. Their rubber faces and broad Scottish and Cockney accents add to the fun as they quickly don a hat or grab a prop to become another character.
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The propulsive plot - drawn from a 1915 novel by Scottish author John Buchan - carries us from London to Scotland and back again via the Highland Express train, a thrilling chase along the Forth Bridge, a soggy hike across the moors, and rides in cars and police vans. There's also a subtly erotic element to the play as the attractive pair are forced to spend the night in a hotel room handcuffed to each other.
Justin Fetterman's brilliant direction brings cinematic effects to the stage in an entirely novel and amusing way. A close-up is suggested by a window in Hannay's apartment, briefly illuminated to reveal the faces of the two goons waiting for him in the street below.
The show also includes some memorable lines from Hitchcock's film.
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Yet another reason to see The 39 Steps is the outstanding musical accompaniment provided by pianist and actor Rich Smith.
The evening begins with a player piano mysteriously playing the unforgettable theme from the TV show Alfred Hitchcock Presents. Then Smith appears at the keyboard, welcoming the audience in the persona of the Master of Suspense. As the play progresses, he performs delightful musical variations on themes from Hitchcock's greatest films, including Psycho and North by Northwest.
Although Hitchcock fans will get a special kick out of this play, I recommend it to anyone who enjoys fast-paced romantic comedy and action thriller plots.
The 39 Steps fulfills the definition of romantic adventure written by John Buchan, the author of the book that provided the inspiration for both the film and the play: “That which effects the mind with a sense of wonder - the surprises of life, fights against odds, weak things confounding strong, beauty and courage flowering in unlikely places.”