PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Maria Aitken

Brief Encounter   PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER With Maria Aitken Director Maria Aitken talks about the challenges (and the comic payoff) of jamming the robust comedy The 39 Steps into a tiny Off-Broadway theatre.
Maria Aitken
Maria Aitken Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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No director in New York has worked harder to keep a production alive than Maria Aitken, the guiding hand behind the ongoing hit The 39 Steps.

A purposefully theatrical, tongue-in-cheek take on the John Buchan espionage novel, which draws heavily on the famous Alfred Hitchcock film adapatation, the play has been a popular success since bowing in London in 2007. It opened at the Criterion and there it has stayed. The 39 Steps' life in New York City has been significantly more complicated, requiring Aitken to return to the city again and again. All told, the production, a wily survivor, has run at four different theatres, hopping from one stage to another like a desperate man leaping from stone to stone across a raging rapids. As of March 25, it plays at its latest home — Off-Broadway's New World Stages. Aitken talked to Playbill.com about how she keeps her pet Rasputin of a play alive.

Playbill.com: The current version of 39 Steps is now playing its fourth Manhattan house.
Maria Aitken: It opened at the Huntington in Boston. It went to the American Airlines Theatre in New York, then the Cort, then the Helen Hayes, and now New World Stages.

Playbill.com: It's a very intricate work in terms of staging, with lots of props and costume changes and moving about. What are the challenges in mounting the play again and again inside very different houses?
MA: You'd be surprised what a difference a couple audience seats will make in staging. Suddenly, the cast can't make costume changes in a couple seconds, because the stage is two feet wider. We've done things like add an extra trunk in the train scene, or just change the position of the furniture so it's as little closer to the exit. Those kind of things happen all the time. For example, we have a problem now that one side of the stage is too small to keep a piece of furniture permanently stashed. So I've had to reverse about an eighth of the play to accommodate this. We've been doing everything back to front in the Scottish hotel scene. What it's meant is that props like the handcuffs are on the other side of the stage. It's throwing up more handcuff difficulties for the actors and it's actually very funny. So, I'm quite grateful, in a way. Playbill.com: How has the square-footage of the stage varied from theatre to theatre?
MA: The Huntington was an enormous stage opening. The American Airlines was pretty wide. The Cort was much smaller. The Helen Hayes was smaller than that. New World Stages is the same size opening as the Helen Hayes, but shallower, which means the crossover at the back — behind the fake back wall of the stage that we have — is very narrow, so they're having to race jumping over a film projector. That's going to make their life more difficult. There are a lot of things at this theatre that're going to make the actors' lives more difficult. But when I think of how we do it in London, we had almost no space at all. It's been in the Criterion the whole time. But it's absolutely hilarious if you watch it backstage. It's like a sort of displaced persons camp. They're squashed in the wings. But in England, we don't have the same union rules you do. As a result, there's a smaller number of stage crew allowed to run it, which means there are less people to get in the way. The union rules here are difficult for a show like this. I couldn't believe it, when I first mounted it on Broadway, that somebody couldn't actually help out a lighting person. Only a wig person could straighten a wig. It's actually anti-theatre.

Playbill.com: You must be surprised by the strange journey this play has taken. It keeps returning to life.
MA: It's like a sort of minor horror movie. It's the little train that could.

Playbill.com: Or Rasputin.
MA: Yes, Rasputin. Absolutely. It's very surprising. And it keeps turing up in countries you don't expect. It's just opened in Japan, which I must say I wasn't expecting. It's been in Korea, Australia, Italy and Israel. It's a phenomenon. I think it may have something to do with the rather charming and faded notion of heroism of a certain kind. Perhaps, better to say "Patriotism." Because we still do value heroism.

Playbill.com: Recently, I noticed that "Masterpiece Theatre" aired a new television version of The 39 Steps.
MA: Yes, I saw it last year in London on television with Rupert Penry-Jones playing Hannay. He's an excellent actor, but I found the film rather turgid.

Playbill.com: Do you think they decided to film it again because of the success of the play?
MA: It's possible, or that the John Buchan estate was sitting on something that had more value than they thought. Oddly enough, I offered the role in the play to the man who played it on television.

Cliff Saunders chases Charles Edwards in <i>The 39 Steps.</i>
Cliff Saunders chases Charles Edwards in The 39 Steps. Joan Marcus
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