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REVIEW: ‘The 39 Steps’ at Langhorne Players in Newtown

By John Millman-Dwyer

The Langhorne Players continue to bring the best drama and comedies to our area.

Many theaters are overly committed to money-making musicals to fill their larger houses. The Langhorne Players commitment is unrivaled. They do shows that cover a breadth of issues and, due to the insight and creativity of the chosen pieces, they attract some of the best talent. Their productions are as professional as the majority of Equity shows due to the talent pool that exists in the New York City and Philadelphia corridor. That is on full display in their current marvelous production of “The 39 Steps.”

This whodunit is based on the early Alfred Hitchcock movie with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. But the movie was not the original source material. Hitchcock adapted his 1935 movie from the 1915 popular mystery of the same name by John Buchanan that initially came out as a serial in August and September of that year in Blackwell’s magazine. The tale, with its episodic structure, is easily imagined as a serial narrative with its action hero Richard Hannay, who regardless of situation, displayed a non-plussed, stiff-upper-lip Englishness.

Buchanan described this novel as a shocker. It was the first of several shockers, where he concocted situations of a personal and political nature that were barely plausible but still plausible. It is easy to see why Hitchcock was attracted to the work. It was murder complicated by sex and politics, but all done with an arched eyebrow, a smile and a wink by its various participants. All of which were also definable qualities of a Hitchcock style.

According to Internet Movie Database, the movie “The 39 Steps” had 29 characters in it. When it was re-worked into a play, it was done so by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon for a cast of only 4 actors. It was financed by the Yorkshire Arts Grant and opened in 1995. It toured all over England and in 2005, Patrick Barlow did a significant re-write. In 2006, it opened in London’s West End (London’s equivalent to Broadway) and stayed there for nine years. The show was the fifth longest-running show in West End history. It opened on Broadway in 2008 and was titled “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.”

The play has received many accolades, which include the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy in 2007 for the West End production. For the New York production, it was nominated for a Tony for Best Play and won Tonys for lighting and sound. It won the 2008 Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience. Paris’s equivalent to The Tony is the Moliere and it won Best Comedy of 2010.

The outlandishness that was in the original novel was burnished by Hitchcock in the movie into a wry archness. All of which was put on steroids for the play adaptation, making it a marvel of theatrical ingenuity by stage actors who seem right out of Monty Python. The outrageousness that garnered so many awards demands quick changes and there is a back wall filled with costumes and props to accomplish this. On the wall we see hats and a window frames and a handbag. My God, there are a million and one things on that wall for the actor.

The play starts out with Richard Hannay sitting in an armchair with a pipe introducing himself to us. He is restless and decides to go to the theater to find some excitement, but finds more than he bargains for as he meets a beautiful woman. There is a shooting, and the woman turns out to be a spy.

Of the four characters onstage, the excellent Jonathan Wierzbicki is the only one who just plays one character. He is our protagonist, Richard Hannay. That, however, is not so easy, as he goes through hell and back in the meandering plot and has to maintain a charm and affability that is enough to enchant a spy, a farmer’s wife and an audience. Wierzbicki has all of that and more than enough to spare. As the storyteller, you have to care about the guy and Wierzbicki somehow has an English easygoingness even in thick of it that beguiles. He is accused of the murder of the woman spy, Annabella Schmidt and escapes to Scotland. Three of the female characters, including Annabella, are played by the creative Julie Coulton, who chameleon-like also becomes the beautiful fellow train passenger Pamela and Margaret, the farmer’s wife.

The rest of the tale, with its many other characters are played by the brilliant actors Mark Applegate and Aaron Wexler. They are respectively called in the program “Clown 1” and “Clown 2.” As the characters they become are so numerous, it is impossible to list them all. With minimal props and a few chairs, they create their characters, settings and circumstances out of whole cloth. But there is magic going on here. We see what they see. These clowns create a world for Hannay and the Hitchcock women, as when they assemble a car out of folding chairs. A prime example of this speed occurs at the train station as the conductor is yelling “all aboard,” and there are changes going so fast and caps flying on and off heads in a snap that it does feel almost like Clown 1 and 2 are jugglers at a circus. But Applegate and Wexler are very well-trained actors at the top of their game giving us an unforgettable theatrical experience.

Earlier this season at three different venues, there was “The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged,” where three actors tell the stories of all of Shakespeare, using a few props and asking the audience to use their imagination. This show is similar in its reliance on a few props and the ability of the actor to tell the story, sans fancy sets and large casts. Both plays had humble beginnings in England and realized classic tales can be told in a cheeky way by a talented band of only three or four actors.

The Hitchcock film is a classic. The British Film Institute ranked it the fourth best British film of the 20th century. Sprinkled through the show are Hitchcock references to other films of his such as “Stranger on a Train,” “Vertigo” and “North by Northwest.”

What is extraordinary here is more than just the source material. The best theater is often those pieces that are uniquely theatrical and unable to be duplicated in any other genre. What is special about this show is how the classic film has been adapted to the stage and made a piece of theater that is so unique in its dependence on the actor’s abilities. Oddly, the playwright may have realized that when he named two of stars of the show Clown 1 and Clown 2. If you think of a circus, seeing a tightrope act on film does not put you on the edge of your seat. But in the small theater of the Langhorne Players, the audience is on the edge of their seats watching the tightrope act of these actors as they change characters and surroundings in the blink of an eye.

Kudos to all involved, including the amazing director Robert A. Norman for coordinating this beautiful, hilarious, organized madness. The show runs to Oct. 19, and tickets are available online.

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