The Seattle Repertory Theatre opened its new season last week with a slapstick adaptation of a classic movie thriller: Alfred Hitchcock'ês The 39 Steps, on stage at the Bagley Wright Theater through Oct. 24.
The play is a curious beast: a broad comedic staging of an old film thriller, itself based on John Buchan'ês brisk and breezy 1915 potboiler. In the book the narrator, an expatriate just returned to Britain, is caught up in an espionage plot on the eve of the First World War. Happily for the safety of the nation, our hero turns out to be an intrepid fellow in the vein of Robert Louis Stevenson'ês less contemplative characters: a proto-James Bond without a government paycheck who grapples successfully with ciphers and disguises, yachts and aeroplanes, scrappy Yanks and villainous Germans. The author described The Thirty-Nine Steps the book as 'êthat elemental type of tale which Americans call the 'êdime novel'ê and we know as the 'êshocker'ê — the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible.'ê [The full novel is available as a free download at Gutenberg.org.] Buchan parlayed a career dense with fiction writing and foreign service into the governor generalship of Canada; his book, similarly successful, has been adapted three times as feature films and once for television.
The first and best known movie was directed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1935, while he was still gathering repute in his native England. Hitchcock had just finished his early version of The Man Who Knew Too Much with Peter Lorre, and was experimenting with stylistic signatures: constrained shots, striking sound effects, climactic scenes in famous locales. Hitchock'ês The 39 Steps is, like the novel, a "shocker," but it diverges widely from the original plot — substituting a mysterious Fraulein for the scrappy American gent, unnamed foreign powers for Germany, a cabal for a staircase, an airplane engine for the prime minister of Greece. It'ês not a particularly funny movie; the director'ês dry wit and his hero'ês insouciance notwithstanding, this is not the Marx Brothers or the Stooges. [Watch it yourself in this free streaming video.]
Yet somehow, the madcap Patrick Barlow of England'ês National Theatre of Brent and his collaborators decided a few years back to repurpose The 39 Steps as a manic farce that dunks Hitchcock repeatedly in a barrel of gags. Originally conceived as one of Barlow'ês usual slapstick two-handers, it transmogrified into a four-actor piece that collected an Olivier Award in London in 2007; the Broadway production, upping the ante with two Tony Awards, is still running after a year and a half. Now the Seattle Repertory Theatre and San Diego'ês La Jolla Playhouse have provided the launch platform for a remount with a planned national tour.
This kind of show is economically sensible. Theater producers have discovered that famous films can make bankable stage plays. Smash successes like The Producers and The Lion King, and indeed the box office draw from any familiar title, ensure that we will be offered many more such adaptations. Alas, the transformation is often misbegotten. In 1995 Vincent Canby described a Broadway version of On the Waterfront as 'êearnest, perfunctory and overproduced.'ê Peter Bradshaw in The Guardian bemoaned the 'êdire misfortune'ê of seeing When Harry Met Sally onstage.
Barlow'ês Hitchcock-and-bull story, while not dire or perfunctory, is an eccentric and inscrutable effort. Film-vs-film parodies are common, and action movies make good targets: Austin Powers satirizes James Bond, and the recent film OSS-117 parodies the novels on which it'ês based. But turning a film thriller into a slapstick stage comedy is rare, for good reason. Can you picture Seattle'ês Teatro Zinzanni trying to clown their way through The Bourne Identity?
There are a few good comedic bones in The 39 Steps which help the humor get off the ground: In the classical Commedia tradition, a pair of youngish lovers must overcome the grotesques and obstacles which confront them. But it'ês never clear why this particular tale was chosen for the farce, and we'êre puzzled even as we titter. Perhaps it'ês a few unfortunate gaffes near the beginning. Starting a comedy with a recitation from an armchair only works if the text is funny; I'êve never seen a couple meet and arrange to go home together by yelling across the stage from their respective opera boxes. And alas, this production consistently disparages its characters when it should help us warm to them. In Hitchcock'ês movie, the hero Richard Hannay finds himself mistaken for a visiting dignitary and thrust onstage to make a speech — a stage-fright nightmare, yet he acquits himself so well that his audience applauds wildly; in this production Hannay hems and haws and looks uncomfortable. This hero has little to recommend him. Even when he and his attractive co-star are shackled together, they fail to find any charming flirtation to counterpoint their vehement antics.
In a physical comedy, your characters can do absurd things like Monty Python'ês silly walks, leaping across the English Channel and what not. They can be dead serious but laughable: high-voiced Nazis, Germans in general, Scots in kilts. They can be aggressive, with pies and punches and slap-sticking one another's butts. They can be droll. They can be virtuosic, performing remarkable feats of prop juggling and acrobatic pratfalls. You — the director — can win laughs with your own virtuosity: brilliant bits of business carefully conceived, like shadow puppets or furniture cleverly repurposed. Or you can pull back the curtain, revealing the wizard to be a bumbler and the cast a nest of incompetents. As Michael Frayn showed in Noises Off, an entire play can be built around choreographed backstage chaos, misplacing props, missing cues, dropping lines, and dropping out of character.
There are many roads to a laugh, and Alfred Hitchock'ês The 39 Steps goes down them all. But as comedians from Aristotle to Chaplin have understood, we must find somebody to engage our interest or sympathy onstage or we'êll get bored with the ride.