39 Steps

The slapstick four-actor parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film returns to New York with its original creative team for a run at the Union Square Theatre.

A classic scene from North by Northwest is recreated in Patrick Barlow's 39 Steps, directed by Maria Aitken, at the Union Square Theatre.
A classic scene from the Alfred Hitchcock film North by Northwest is re-created in Patrick Barlow's 39 Steps, directed by Maria Aitken, at the Union Square Theatre.
(© Joan Marcus)

Comedy, as they say, is all about timing. If something is a mere second off, even the funniest routine can be ruined. Such is the case of the new off-Broadway revival of Patrick Barlow's 39 Steps. One of the funniest plays Broadway had seen in years when it premiered in 2008 is now majorly head-scratching in just how unfunny this mounting is.

Director Maria Aitken, who shepherded the piece to Roundabout Theatre Company's American Airlines Theatre seven years ago (and to various other theaters on and off Broadway), has returned to re-create her brilliantly theatrical vision. She is joined by the original Tony-nominated scenic and costume designer Peter McKintosh, who has installed a gorgeously gilded false proscenium arch into the Union Square Theatre; Kevin Adams, whose Tony-winning lighting was a masterful example of transferring film noir to the stage; and Mic Pool, who won the first-ever Tony for Sound Design for his brilliant environmental soundscape.

So where does it go wrong? It seems that the show — a parody of John Buchan's 1915 spy novel and Alfred Hitchcock's subsequent 1935 film — was rushed to the stage without enough rehearsal. 39 Steps ("The" has been dropped from the title) is a tricky play to get right; Barlow's concept calls for the entire film to be re-created by four actors. At the center is the dashing Richard Hannay (Tony nominee Robert Petkoff), who is on the run after a mysterious female spy (Brittany Vicars) is murdered in his apartment. A chase across the Scottish Highlands follows as Hannay tries to decipher the identity of the mysterious "39 Steps," which the spy mentioned before her death.

Watching Aitken's revival, it seems like the trying-so-desperately-hard cast is still figuring out their grooves. This could account for why the pacing is so far off, the chemistry nonexistent, and the campiness too big for a house of this size. Petkoff isn’t quite the matinee idol in the guise of Robert Donat (who played Hannay on-screen), and that sort of drop-dead-gorgeous allure is critically missing. Vicars, a recent Juilliard grad making her New York stage debut, makes little impression as three different women who come in and out of Hannay's life. Neither has the theatrical weight that one looks for in original cast members of a revival.

Fortunately, the company also includes original Broadway cast member Arnie Burton, and 39 Steps newcomer Billy Carter, in roles aptly called Clown #2 and Clown #1. They play every other character in the show, men and women, young and old, heroes and villains. The genius of Aitken's staging lies in their shape-shifting work, with warp-speed quick-changes that allow them to play multiple people in the same scene at the same time. Burton's performance, in particular, is a master class, even though he's guilty of pushing too hard to compensate for the other three.

Naturally, the biggest laughs come from several Hitchcock references that pop up as the evening wears on. It's a whole lot of fun to see if you can spot Psycho and North by Northwest, and even a cameo from Hitch himself. Although, when you do see him, you can't help but wonder what he'd think of the state of things at the Union Square Theatre.

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