By Sue Merrell
Forget everything you remember about Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 spy thriller, “The 39 Steps.” All you need to know about the outrageous stage adaptation at Saugatuck’s Mason Street Warehouse is all the roles, from the train conductor and hotel maid to the Nazi spy and handsome hero – an estimated 150 characters – are played by four actors.
Four actors with attitude and a lot of good, old-fashioned stage theatrics.
David Spencer and Richard Price, the versatile duo who juggle most of the parts, are shuffling three hats apiece at one point to carry on a crazy conversation between constable, conductor, paper boy and train passengers. That’s when Joe Somodi, who portrays the show’s wide-eyed hero, Richard Hannay, steps out of character long enough to call an end to the ridiculous banter and demand “get on with it.”
Nothing in this film noir spoof is meant to be taken seriously. The plot, which actually follows the movie closely, is definitely secondary to silliness. When the hero lifts the window shade to see a pair of trench-coated spies under a street lamp, Spencer and Price, in trench coats, haul a lit street lamp onto the stage, lean against it, and then haul it off again when the shade is lowered. You can imagine how silly it gets when the hero keeps peeking behind the shade.
Perhaps a more appropriate title would be “The 39 Scenes,” because the cinematic story covers at least that many locations from the windy moors of Scotland to a wild chase scene over the top of a moving train and the hero’s plunge from the shadowy railroad bridge. The fun comes in when the actors flap their jackets to the roaring sound effects of wind. Or sway and bounce with rhythmic precision to simulate the train’s movements. The real wonder is how director Kurt Stamm managed to orchestrate all the timing so perfectly to create such hilarious effects. You know there have to be at least four more people backstage pulling all the strings.
In the story – if you even care about plot – Hannay, a bored Brit with too much money and good looks, goes to the theater to see a presentation by the amazing Mr. Memory who can rattle off the answer to any question. Shots are fired and in the ensuing panic, Hannay rescues a beautiful woman who turns out to be a German spy fleeing a Nazi villain with a shortened pinkie finger.
Jamie Morgan does a great job playing the show’s three beautiful women – the overly dramatic German Annabella; the shy Scottish farmer’s wife Margaret and the blonde British bombshell Pamela, who ends up handcuffed to the hero she hates. Morgan seems to have no trouble making her three accents believable – or at least as believable as anything in this over-the-top show.
Somodi also is convincing as the stereotypical spoiled Brit who can slip out a window, scamper over the moor or sleep in a chair without mussing his suit or hairstyle.
But the amazing stars of this production are Spencer and Price. The pair is perfectly in synch as Mr. Memory and his announcer, pulling laughs out of an otherwise lifeless scene. They work similar wonders on the train, dancing around each other to create the illusion of tight spaces and announcing the passing towns outside the train window with the fantastic effect of flapping jowls.
Spencer turns his Scottish farmer’s prayer into a work of art and is hilarious as a purposely unintelligible speaker at a podium. Price has some priceless moments, too, creating the frightening short-fingered Nazi as well as a bouncy Scottish lass.
And then there’s all the shadow play that brings in references to other Hitchcock films like “Psycho” and “North By Northwest.”
But the mind can only absorb so much nonsense. There was a point, about two-thirds of the way through, when I started wondering what time it was, and that never happens when I’m watching a Mason Street production. It wasn’t that the two-hour show was overly long, it’s just that my appetite for over-the-top was overflowing.
Set designer Jon Reeves has done a fantastic job turning Mason Street’s modern, sleek stage into an old-fashioned, proscenium theater with stained brick walls and bare-board floor. Sometimes faking a simple set can be terribly complex. And, of course, Jennifer Kules’ lighting design makes it possible to believe two ladders form a bridge or imagine the separation between an apartment and a street lamp below.
“The 39 Steps” is a feast for fans of good old-fashioned theatricality.
‘The 39 Steps’
Mason Street Warehouse, 400 Culver St., Saugatuck. Tuesday-Sunday through Aug. 28. $26-$39.75. 269-857-4898. http://www.masonstreetwarehouse.org