The 39 Steps is an organization of spies, collecting information on behalf of the foreign office of . . ." Crack! A shot cuts short the automatic-pilot recall of Mr. Memory, a music-hall mentalist spewing forth a Top Secret that has just been triggered by the right question from a man in the audience. The man in, and with the, question is Alfred Hitchcock's first "wrong man" — Richard Hannay — a bloke who finds a murdered Mata Hari in his flat and leads authorities and subversives alike on a wild tear across Scotland, first to a professor who's missing the top joint of his pinkie, and then back to that London music hall where the case-cracking secret is stored in Mr. Memory's head, just asking to come out.
"It's a real 'MacGuffin,'" exclaims director Maria Aitken, employing Hitchcock's own private euphemism for a gimmick "that advances the story, with no real relevance to the story." She follows it like Holy Writ, too, in the Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines Theatre, emulating on a shoestring budget every minute detail of Hitchcock's sprawling arrival film.
The title MacGuffin got around a lot, she notes: "The 39 Steps, in every single version, is something different — sometimes it's groups of people, sometimes it's actual steps — and, of course, there's the John Buchan novel, which Hitchcock supposedly based his movie on but didn't. Only the first couple of pages were taken, setting up who Hannay is. That he is in Scotland and on the run is there, but it's quite different. There're no women at all in it, and it's sort of lightly homoerotic. He's always whipping into workman's clothes."
The idea of approximating onstage the galloping pandemonium of the film is ridiculous, of course — worthy of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company of the late Charles Ludlam — and, indeed, Ludlam is the stage-way to Hitchcock. Never before have their names come up in the same sentence, but here their jolly, jarring juxtaposition is the source of considerable fun, the inventive silliness of an aspiring ragtag showman with delusions of grandeur. Aitken was tapped to direct because she caught the eye of a smart British producer, Edward Snape, as director of Ludlam's The Mystery of Irma Vep. "Because that show involves populating the stage with masses of people when you've only got two, I think he figured I could probably do well with it."
The 39 Steps started out as a two-man extravaganza, conceived and performed by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. Snape caught it and commissioned Patrick Barlow of yet another two-man troupe, the National Theatre of Brent, to adapt their script — and then, lavishly, doubled the cast to four.
"It was done in the north of England, in Leeds and on tour and retired. Then they asked me to look at it. I inherited costumes, a concept, something I didn't really fancy, but it was a wonderful corset — a discipline — and so I had my go, and the writer was terrific and would put in stuff that I wanted. We opened at this tiny theatre, the Tricycle, and then it went to the West End, where it just had its 500th performance.
"I must have seen the Hitchcock film close to 100 times, and every time — for the first 30 or 40 times — I would see something new that I wanted to pinch, so the stage action is crowded with tiny details. For example, after Hannay has gone through the sheriff's window, he disappears into a marching band — kilted, bagpiped people — and that's quite hard to do with only two actors, but, since it's done on the cheap, they just have a board across their shoulders with kilts, jackets and hats hanging on them. We do things simply."
The success of The 39 Steps in this delightfully diminished state amazes even Aitken. "It's like a mad, mutating baby. It was done in Israel by my assistant because I was doing it in Boston at the time. And while I'm here doing it on Broadway, my assistant is doing it in Italy. I'm off to Australia after this, and my assistant's going to Korea. It's sprouting."
But the cherry on the sundae occurred last February when The 39 Steps won the Olivier Award for the Best New Comedy of 2007. "Patrick received it. It was a little like 'The Little Train That Could.' I've forgotten the whole evening. Those evenings pass in a bit of a blur because (a) they're interminable, and (b) there's nothing to do but drink. I was so surprised. There was this noise that came out of me that I wasn't really responsible for."