Hitchcock and comedy don’t seem like a perfect combination, but theatre sometimes makes for strange bedfellows, as is proven by Austin Playhouse’s Austin premiere of Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps, a hilarious send-up of Hitchcock’s debut film directed by Austin Playhouse artistic director Don Toner. The play sets out to present Hitchcock’s script nearly verbatim, with only four actors playing all the roles. One actor plays the lead, one actress plays all the leading ladies, and the other characters are split between a pair of actors known as “the clowns”. Austin Playhouse take these regulations and runs with them, creating a riveting and engrossing experience that’s sure to have the audience in stitches.
Benjamin Summers cuts a fine figure as the dashing secret agent Richard Hannay, combining the charisma of a Princess Bride-era Cary Elwes, with the wit and refinement of William Powell’s Thin Man. His comedic timing is spot on throughout, bringing the laughs early and often, drawing us into the world from the very first moments. Even as he finds himself in imminent danger, he finds time for a clever quip or a bit of repartee, doing it all in proper Thin Man fashion. He, and the other actors, constantly break the fourth wall, creating hilarious postmodern moments that increase the humor tenfold.
Company regular Lara Toner has shown great work in previous productions, but here she pushes herself to play three different roles. The problem is, that while most of the times these performances work well, some of them fall flat. She makes a less-than-stellar first impression when we meet in her first guise as Annabella Schmidt. Her strange accent (somewhere between German, Swedish, and Russian) is more off-putting than convincing or hilarious, and her mannerisms seem forced . When she becomes the doe-eyed Irish lass Margaret, however, we begin to see some talent shining through, playing the cute cossette with delicate skill. Her most convincing role, however, is also her most important,as Pamlea the strong-willed everywoman who inadvertently gets pulled into Richard’s world. Toner has a certain talent for taking on the spoiled and privileged, as we have seen in her impressive performance in last year’s Misalliance, and here she plays the part with quite a bit of devotion, pulling us in and taking us along for the ride.
Though the two leads provide us with plenty of laughs and action, the true stars of this production are David Stahl and Michael Stuart as the “two clowns”. The two stage veterans perform as dozens of different characters, ranging from peasants, to old women, to psychics, to gangsters, to cops, and many others, sometimes switching between these characters without a moments notice. One particularly funny moment involving a train has Stahl changing appearances and characters within the blink of an eye, creating some uproarious moments as he tries to keep character while donning different hats, different accents, and even different genders.
The 39 Steps is a quite funny and action-packed production,featuring some charismatic and hilarious performances from most of the cast, but Austin Playhouse has still not upped the ante enough to be considered in the upper echelon of the Austin theatre scene. Though they always present solid, entertaining nights of theatre, they never take enough risks to truly get the attention of the theatre public, Their plays often offer plenty of laughs, and the occasional tears,but they never truly shock or awe an audience. This season seems to continue this trend, with productions of Laughter of the 23rd Floor, The Importance of Being Earnest, and Tartuffe, and while these plays are sure to entertain and elicits plenty of laughs, we can hope that next season they can take some risks and truly push themselves to become something greater.
Austin Playhouse’s The 39 Steps is playing through October 30th. To find out more information, and to purchase tickets, please visit their website at austinplayhouse.com