A huge Broadway hit (with 771 performances at three different theaters) and a West End perennial, "The 39 Steps," as adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, is one tricked-out romantic comedy thriller. And director David New's new Drury Lane Theatre production of this spoof, wherein four actors play scores of different roles, could write the instruction manual on every last one of those roles. With the help of a talented and game cast, no visual joke goes ungagged, no piece of business is laid off, no bit of fluff is left unteased.
But you know, comedy is a funny beast. Over-think it, over-stage it or over-stock it, and you can kill it off quicker than an egg fries on the Kingery Highway in the heat of this singular suburban summer. "The 39 Steps" relies, for most of its humor, on the notion of a little quartet of quick-changing theatrical performers scrambling to stage the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller of the same name, a memorable yarn that moves from London to Scotland and back, and from a theater to the moors to a speeding automobile, with bullets and bodies aplenty. No seemingly over-expansive cinematic tableau defeats this little company, which comes up with ways to stage (to name just a few) an escape from a moving train, a remote cottage, a marching company of Scots pipers, and all manner of other environments and situations for the struggling and peripatetic bickering romantic pair at the heart of this yarn to walk through and step around.
"The 39 Steps" certainly offers some easygoing seasonal entertainment in the summer-stock tradition and the cast of the dry-martini Peter Simon Hilton, the vampish Angela Ingersoll and the comic duo of Jeff Dumas and Paul Kalina are not averse to forging broad characters or breaking a sweat. And designer Kevin Depinet comes up with an amusingly scaled and generally funny set that looks like an old theater, squeezed through a wringer. Many people in the house Thursday night had a good time; it's the kind of show that makes many feel like they are getting their money's worth.
But as was the case with the waning days of the national tour (which came through Chicago, forgettably, in 2010) the problem with New's inorganic production of "The 39 Steps" is that it allows the moment-by-moment gags, the shtick, to get in the way of the actual macro-storytelling. Sure, it's all about physical comedy (and New has the horses to run that race). But "The 39 Steps" only works on top form if the main plot of the thriller (the less you know about the plot twists, the better) stays center stage. A director needs to keep the audience engrossed in the mystery in that famous Hitchcockian tradition, and also make us believe these actors are desperately trying to stage, truthfully and to the best of their abilities, that which is almost impossible to confine to a theater. Sure, the gap between attempt and reality forges a wacky comedy, but the show's overall stakes still have to rise sufficiently that you at least bite a least a nail or three, wondering what plot might twist next. And you have to care about the characters.
None of that happens enough here. After a promising couple of early scenes, which are very cleverly done, the evening starts to flatten into more and more of the same; the show, which never really seems to breathe, is staged much more effectively than it is shaped.
No fevered hearts pulse. No Hitchcockian sniff of sensual danger is in the room. No complexity rages. A little more attention to all that — and a little less to the intricacies of every gag — would have quickened the comedy of the night.
When: Through Aug. 26
Where: Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace.
Running time: 2 hours
Tickets: $35-$46 at 630-530-0111 or drurylaneoakbrook.comCopyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times