BOTTOM LINE: Worth seeing because the production is so imaginative and unique, and also because the cast is incredible. It’s a fun ride, but just know it’s not about the story being told — it’s about how the story is being told.
I can see why The 39 Steps won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy: the execution is kind of genius. Seeing this play is a lesson in creative storytelling. The 39 Steps is a big, fat homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s movies; it’s essentially his movie The 39 Steps, with some obvious references to other Hitchcock films. However, the story is told with only 4 actors, and only a handful of set pieces that the actors move around the stage as the scene requires.
This is not an easy feat for a story of this magnitude. It’s classic Hitchcock suspense with perhaps a little more action than usual (and no, you don’t need to have prior knowledge of the Hitchcock movie to understand the play). To accurately tell this story, you need to show a moving train, a chase on the top of this moving train, airplanes flying and hovering just over the hero’s head, a stage full of dancers, a parade, a speeding convertible, and a plethora of other things larger than a stage with 4 actors can allow. The 39 Steps manages to create these scenes with merely a few sets, brilliant lights and sound, and 4 incredible actors. And the really great thing is that I never questioned it; the minimalism is supported by the humor and the stellar character work.
Overall, I dug the play. It was quite entertaining and watching it unfold was a fun ride that I felt happy to be on. The downfall for me, though, was the plot. It seemed pretty clear that the intention of this theatrical endeavor was to tell Hitchcock’s story using clever staging and cool techniques while keeping it all amusing with that dry British wit. The intention did not seem to be to actually tell the story and make it (even somewhat) real. Sure, there was action, there were characters, even relationships between them … and yeah, there was a plot. But for me, I need the characters to form a relationship with the audience; I like to feel like I’m watching these people go through something real. The 39 Steps is much less about a mutual experience between cast and audience, and I never thought these people actually existed outside the American Airlines Theatre. But that’s a preference thing, and it doesn’t take away from the caliber of talent or the brilliant staging of the play. If you enjoy a goofy farce, I doubt it will bother you at all.
The 39 Steps plays at American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St. It officially opens January 19 and runs through (at least) March 23: Tue-Sat 8 PM, and Wed, Sat, and Sun 2 PM. Tickets are available at roundabouttheatre.org or by calling 212-719-1300. Check out theatreiseasy.com for other reviews and NY theatre information.