Summer Rep’s director of “The 39 Steps,” Shad Willingham laid out the literary and historical background for the play and then immediately said, “None of which you need to know to enjoy Summer Repertory Theatre Festival’s “The 39 Steps.” No need to study World War I or the rise of the dictators in the 1930s or know that Alfred Hitchcock transformed John Buchan’s 1915 novel into a 1935 film classic.
That’s because John Barlow adapted the novel and the film two decades ago into something that is not a breathtaking thriller or a serious spy story. And SRT’s Willingham directed a play that defies specific characterization.
Is it a spoof, a campy mockery of film noir, slapstick, exaggerated melodrama, silly, funny, understated over-the-top nonsense or a semi-comic thriller? Count the audience’s laughs as it’s all of these things and much more.
Four actors fill dozens of parts. Actually, two actors, Carson Cerney and Roberto Perez Kempton, play many roles while one actress, Caroline Pernick plays three women, and Nicholas Fernandez concentrates all of his efforts on the main character, Richard Hannay.
The story, simple to understand, seems difficult to follow because each little scene, fun in itself, becomes a part of a variety show of the absurd. And each absurdity is enjoyable in itself. But the main character, Richard, always brings back the storyline, the solving of a murder, the fear of something dreadful called the 39 steps, and bizarre love interests in three women played by Pernick: Annabella, Pamela and Margaret.
Most of us first became familiar with “The 39 Steps” through Holden Caulfield’s reminiscence of the Hitchcock 1935 film in the novel “The Catcher in the Rye.” He recalls how his sister Phoebe reacted during subsequent viewings of the movie. “And when this professor that’s really a German spy, sticks up his little finger with part of the joint missing, to show Robert Donat, old Phoebe beats him to it—she holds up her little finger at me in the dark, right in front of my face.” And this action threads the film and the play.
Some of the humor relies on the audience’s familiarity with Alfred Hitchcock and films such as “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” “Psycho,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.” Even better, the device showing Hitchcock’s profile in all of these films is difficult to miss in this production.
The theater presentation of Mr. Memory appears to be an incidental interlude to produce more laughs. And, yet, Mr. Memory will pull together the random scenes and loosely disjointed story in the climax.
Credit the entire production team along with the actors for making this show so gleefully theatrical. Precise movements and timely deliveries reflected Willingham’s careful direction. Incredibly tight-packed staging allowed so many quick-paced scenes within the scenes arranged by Scenic Designer Theron Wineinger. Lighting Designer Joseph Beumer supported the staging and the acting as events moved rapidly. And Anna Alex enhanced the fun with a variety of sounds along with some familiar 1930s songs before and during the show.
For those who need more clarity, let’s dub this production a Monty Python mystery. For those who need more laughs than minutes, take this show as it comes. No reason to define it as thrilling melodrama, campy spy story, suspenseful love quest.
And the good news is that this show runs through July 31. For tickets call 707-527-4307 or go online: summerrep.com.