PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: The 39 Steps — Stitching Hitch Together

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17 Jan 2008

Flashlights streaked the cold, dark skies in front of the American Airlines Theatre Jan. 15, signaling the Broadway arrival of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps — in miniature on stage.

Less is moronically more in this ragtag theatrical retelling of Hitch's unwieldy 1935 spy romp. In there, too, is a salute to the indomitable spirit of actors deliriously determined to approximate the impossible. That conceit won an Olivier for Best New Comedy of 2007.

Patrick Barlow, who received this prize for adapting the play (from an equally demented original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon — and, lest you forget which is very easy to do since it tells an entirely different story, John Buchan's 1915 novel), gulped big-time to find his modest opus transplanted on the Main Stem. "No, I never envisioned Broadway," he said at the Marriott Marquis afterparty, shaking his head in bewilderment.

"It's very hard for us Brits. All the Americans like it. When you're in the West End and you have American tourists, they all love it — it's a different thing to them. It's like coming into a foreign territory and watching the natives. To come over here and do it — that's frightening." On new and shaky turf, the humor has been broadened for the Yanks, and he approves: "It's a much better theatre here — and a much bigger theatre so you have to fill it.

"It started off at a tiny theatre in North London called The Tricycle. Normally, I do huge epics on a shoestring budget — the Zulu War or the Charles and Diana story or Wagner's Ring Cycle, in a half-hour with two people — very serious topics, done on a small scale."

There have been three different sets of "The 39 Steps" on the screen. Robert Donat in 1935, Kenneth More in 1959, Robert Powell in 1978 — all had the same title, but the 39 steps were not always defined the same. Sometimes they were spies, sometimes actual steps.

According to Barlow, his play version recycles virtually verbatim "about half, basically" of the original screenplay written by Charles Bennett, Ian Hay and Mrs. Hitchcock, Alma Reville — although Playbill's title page doesn't acknowledge the considerable contribution.

The big, overriding difference between the two presentations is the absurdly ambitious lengths to which Barlow and his director, Maria Aitken, will go to match the mediums.

"We do exactly the same cut," director Aitken threw out for inspection, referring the film's classic piece of editing: On discovering Annabella Schmidt stabbed to death in the apartment of our hapless hero, Richard Hannay, his charwoman opens her mouth to scream, and the mouth suddenly turns into a railway tunnel as a train charges into it.

"When she starts to scream, it's the train whistle, and smoke belches out of the wings, and everybody runs about in the smoke. Annabella — the body — gets up and pushes her own chair off, and within seconds we're in the train with Hannay and the two salesmen."

Then she had to contend with the memory of Mr. Memory, the music-hall mentalist whose mind has the classified information that all the subversives are scampering after.

"There are these wonderful sideway shots in the movie where he appears to be leaning across the frame. We do that with the actual actor." Indeed, Cliff Saunders plays the part at a Pisa-like tilt, rocking side to side like some schmo on the beach. "I used to do it much bigger, and it got a bigger kind of laugh," the actor allowed. "That was the way we did it in Boston, but, when we came here, we tried to tap into the characters a little more. I like it now when people actually get a little choked up when Mr. Memory does his last scene."

In a cast of four, Saunders is listed first in the Playbill cast listing as "Man #1," followed by Arnie Burton in the role of "Man #2." In truth, these two comprise a menagerie of multi-tasking — a pair of perpetually whirling dervishes who keep the lunacy at full gallop.

"I've never counted," claimed Burton, "but supposedly there are 155 parts, so I'd say that I do 75 roles, something like that. That's including a bog, a river, a brook, all inanimate objects. I play four different characters in one scene, and then I have a scene with myself.

"It's so much fun — and I know everyone says that on opening nights — but it truly is. I love old movies so I get to do some old movie-acting and do it with three incredible people."

Still not counting, Burton figured that he has seen the Hitch flick "like, 20-something times. I watched it a lot for the auditions, and then, once we were in rehearsal, I would periodically watch it. And, y'know, I still put it on, just to look at a scene or something."

Burton got his acting chops in stock. For years, he was one of the gems at the Pearl Theatre Company, along with John Rando, who subsequently became the Tony-winning director of Urinetown. "I was just talking to John. He came to see the show the other night, and he said, 'We should go back and do something at the Pearl together.' So we may just do that, I dunno. He told me, 'Think of a play.'" Well . . . Scapino, anyone?

One thing he really doesn't count is his first outing on Broadway. "I took over in the last Amadeus," Burton said, "doing valets and small parts, and I understudied Mozart" (Michael Sheen). Like the whole cast, he considers The 39 Steps his first on Broadway.

With the Canadian-born Saunders, a Broadway debut was a conscious choice. "When I chose to do this, I'd been offered something else — a movie — and it was a very tough decision because I wanted to work with the director, but it was one of those things where I thought, 'Well, I've done movies and a lot of theatre, but I'd never done Broadway.' I think every actor has that curiosity. Not to put Broadway as a notch on a belt, but I gotta say, it's a lovely experience. New York has been very kind to me. I'm very glad I did it."

A brunette, Jennifer Ferrin, was asked by Aitken to fill the shoes of the first of the "Hitchcock blondes," the mesmerizing Madeleine Carroll. "I was shocked [Aitken] cast me," Ferrin admitted, "but I was grateful to get to work with her. She's so brilliant and caring."

For Charles Edwards, who originated the Hannay role in London, a Broadway debut is the light at the end of a very long tunnel. "It feels wonderful, primarily because I've been involved with this from the beginning. Somewhere in 2006, we started. It was a show before that, but Maria hired me when she started. She saw me do Hay Fever at the Haymarket with Judi Dench. For a while, I was rehearsing by day and acting at night."


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