After a multi-year Broadway run (at three different theaters), the current Off-Broadway production is now nestled comfortably into New World Stages, where it feels nicely intimate. And while the current cast is perhaps a bit broader than the foursome who originated the show on Broadway, they definitely get the laughs and heartily embrace the show's semi-satiric tone.
Truth be told, this 105-minute work -- which originated with John Buchan's little-known novel -- more often induces smiles than real guffaws. Still, there are numerous moments of sheer physical genius. Better still, the show contains precious few lapses into sophomoric humor or, worse yet, boredom. That is in part, because much of the script hews rather closely to the movie's screenplay, even lifting large chunks of dialogue, which ensures that the story remains reasonably involving.
The play focuses on Richard Hannay (John Behlmann), a suave and somewhat bored Englishman, who naively agrees to take home Annabella Schmidt (Kate MacCluggage), 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, and he winds up the prime suspect in her murder.
Instantly, he's off to Scotland to try to clear his name and discover Annabella's secret -- a task that proves much harder than it first appears. Eventually, he hooks up with Pamela (MacCluggage), a haughty young woman who twice turns Hannay into the authorities -- while fighting her obvious attraction for him -- and who eventually becomes his ally in uncovering the mystery of "The 39 Steps."
The extremely attractive Behlmann (whom we're constantly reminded is very good looking) plays Hannay with an almost surprising touch of élan, as if he is enjoying the silliness of this lark as much as the audience. Conversely, MacCluggage emphasizes the self-seriousness and brittleness of her characters (although she's a bit softer as farm wife Margaret, who helps Hannay make one of his many getaways).
The remainder of the show's many parts -- both male and female -- are played with complete dexterity by Cameron Folmar and Jamie Jackson. Indeed, the pair's ability to changes clothes, accents, and even genders extremely quickly is often astounding, and a sequence on the train (and outside the station) shows the duo off to superb advantage.
The show's other shining stars are set and costume designer Peter McKintosh, lighting designer Kevin Adams, and sound designer Mic Pool, all of whom 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).
The 39 Steps may not be must-see theater, but anyone who ascends them will find the climb well worth the effort.