True, this 105-minute work -- which originated with John Buchan's little-known novel -- more often induces smiles than real guffaws; but there are moments of sheer physical genius here that are cause for spontaneous applause, and precious few lapses into sophomoric humor or, worse yet, boredom. Part of its success can be traced to the fact that the play -- which was first seen in London and then came stateside to Boston's Huntington Theatre -- hews rather closely to the movie's screenplay, even lifting large chunks of dialogue. The heightening for laughs is done judiciously, while making sure the story remains reasonably involving.
Indeed, the most significant changes made by Barlow are a cutesy (if arguably unnecessary) prologue and epilogue; a speech that makes all-too-explicit the villain's Nazi sympathies, and, best of all, a number of verbal and physical references to Hitchcock's later films, some of which are side-splittingly hilarious and unexpected.
Shortly after that prologue ends, Richard Hannay (Charles Edwards), a suave and somewhat bored Englishman, agrees to take home Annabella Schmidt (Jennifer Ferrin), a mysterious woman he meets at the theater. Once they're in Hannay's rented flat, she explains she's a secret agent with knowledge of an important military secret who's seeking a hiding place from two men who are after her. While Hannay initially doubts her tale, he's firmly convinced of its truth the next morning when she comes into the living room with a knife in her back.
Instantly, he's off to Scotland to try to clear his name and discover Annabella's secret -- a task that proves even harder than it first appears. Along the way, he encounters a host of characters, both good and evil -- all impersonated by Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders -- as well as two very different ladies (both impersonated by Ferrin): Pamela, a haughty young woman who twice turns Hannay into the authorities while fighting her obvious attraction for him, and Margaret, an unhappy farmer's wife who helps him escape from the police.
Edwards, the only cast member to come over from London, nicely captures Hannay's vanity, but one suspects the primary reason for his presence is his strong physical and vocal resemblance to Robert Donat, who played Hannay in the film. Similarly, Ferrin -- a former Daytime Emmy nominee for her work on As The World Turns -- has been styled as an almost perfect reincarnation of Madeleine Carroll, who played Pamela. More importantly, she so deftly distinguishes all three of her characters, you might not realize they're being played by the same actress.
In many ways, however, the show belongs to the lanky Burton and the rounder Saunders, whose versatility -- and ability to changes clothes extremely quickly -- is often astounding. A set piece in which the pair play six different characters in about 30 seconds, while constantly changing hats, is both breathtaking and hilarious, and Burton has almost too much fun as the bad guy, Dr. Jordan.
The show's other shining stars are set and costume designer Peter McKintosh, lighting designer Kevin Adams, and sound designer Mic Pool, who find myriad clever ways to recreate the script's numerous locales and crowd scenes, often using only a few small pieces of furniture (and one brilliant scrim).
Ultimately, Hitchcock fans may be the only ones who really need to run to The 39 Steps, but anyone who ascends them will find the climb worth the effort.