Charles in Charge

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04 Jun 2008

Charles Edwards in <I>The 39 Steps.</I>
Charles Edwards in The 39 Steps.
Photo by Joan Marcus

With his English tweeds, pipe in hand and an eyebrow knowingly arched, Charles Edwards is charming and silly as the hunted hero of The 39 Steps.

*

Dashing figures are not often seen on Broadway these days. It's a character type and style of acting that's simply not called for in 21st-century theatre, where male protagonists tend toward mumbling, damaged antiheroes if you're lucky and proudly immoral sociopaths if you're not. Moreover, there are practical reasons for the disappearance of gallant gentlemen. What would they do? Today's plays furnish no women in need of rescue, no wicked villains ripe to be foiled.

That is, except in the British transport The 39 Steps, in which Charles Edwards gives the most dashing performance in New York — even if it is intentionally self-mocking. In Patrick Barlow's spoofing adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's taut 1935 thriller, Edwards plays Richard Hannay, the part created by Robert Donat on screen. Through a chance encounter with a mysterious woman in a theatre, the jaded, debonair Hannay is drawn into an international spy ring out to kill him and his unwilling partner in flight, the disbelieving Pamela (played by Madeleine Carroll in the film, Jennifer Ferrin onstage). To elude his would-be captors and expose an insidious plot against The Free World, Hannay must ride outside moving trains, plummet from a bridge, don various disguises, woo several women and take a bullet — all while preserving an air of sangfroid and a carefully groomed pencil moustache.

Edwards — who has played the part hundreds of times, first at the Tricycle Theatre in London, then on the West End, then at the Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre, and now finally at Broadway's Cort Theatre — has the pose down to a science. "My five-second solution to becoming dashing, in this context, is to cock my eyebrow," he explained. "That says, 'I'm dashing. I'm heroic.' And also it lets the audience in on the joke.



Charles Edwards
photo by Aubrey Reuben
"I've tried to comment on the dashingness and heroic qualities of Hannay," he continued. "It's fun to play that up. I think it's probably rather boring to play these roles seriously. But in a comedy, it's great fun, because you're spoofing it, you're heightening its absurdity. I like to tip a wink at the audience."

You'd expect plenty of winking in a show that has dozens of characters but a cast of only four and many locations but precious few scenic items. (Edwards is the only person onstage who remains the same character throughout the evening.) Director Maria Aitken and adapter Barlow follow the plotline of the film closely, but beyond that, almost everything is placed within some very arch quotation marks. "Hitchcock." "Thriller." "Special Effects." "Archetypes."

One thing that is not in quotes in the production is "Robert Donat." Edwards made a pointed effort — one supported by Aitken — not to directly mimic the widely praised performance by Donat, a British actor who possessed legendary status in the 1930s and '40s but is largely forgotten today.

"I didn't want to do a Donat take on it," he said. "We're trying to conjure up the spirit of the movie, and movies of that time, and that style of acting. Also, I didn't want to do Donat because he gives such a fine performance in the film. We have great respect for the source material. To outwit Hitchcock is a foolhardy enterprise. What we eventually came up with, rather than a spoof of cinema, is a celebration of what theatre can do that cinema can't. The show celebrates theatre as a medium and reminds us why theatre is so special."

Edwards said the rehearsal process with Aitken and Barlow was very collaborative, with the actors suggesting various lines and bits of business along the way as the team deduced how to reimagine a very action-packed story on a bare stage. The actor may now regret some of his inventiveness; the production keeps him plenty busy, particularly in the first act, most of which he spends "running."

"I can take half an hour less at the gym these days," he joked. "At the end of act one I'm soaking wet and have to change into new clothes. There was a time when they were considering doing the show without an interval. Thankfully, they decided against that. The interval is quite welcome!"

Edwards embraced the move to the Cort — a shift that occurred after The 39 Steps became a popular hit at the American Airlines Theatre. "The Cort is slightly more intimate, which I think serves the show very well." Nonetheless, he's decided to exit the production in early July and give his dashing side a rest. "I thought it was time to hang up the tweeds." And the moustache? "I'm looking forward to shaving that off."