'39 Steps' gets ramped-up treatment at Town Hall Arts Center


London, 1935. Bored special-agent type Robert Hannay, tired of being back in London (his old buddies are married or eaten by a crocodile), decides to go to the theater as the Town Hall Arts Center production of “The 39 Steps” opens.

Hannay, played by James O’Hagan Murphy, is joined in his theater box by sexy spy Annabella Schmidt (Mackenzie Paulsen) who goes home with him — and is murdered by morning.

He is off and running towards the Scottish Highlands, from unknown killers and in search of the spy ring called 39 Steps — with three different women, all played by Paulsen.

The rest of the 100-plus parts are played with astonishing comic timing by two “clowns”: Eric Mather and Seth Maisel. Sometimes it’s just the change of a hat and at other times, there are rapid costume changes — all very cleverly staged by veteran director Robert Wells.

We see a race across the tops of a moving train headed towards the Highlands, the misty Scottish moors at dawn, the McGarrigle Hotel and its peculiar proprietors, the stage of the London Palladium and more ...

Hitchcock’s original 1935 movie was based on a spy thriller written in 1915 by John Buchan. One wonders what those two would think of this crazy version, adapted by Patrick Barlow. And one wonders at the imagination that could envision this ongoing hilarity.

It’s a delightful spoof that keeps an audience laughing as our hero is chased by police, dogs, planes and sinister types. Wells, in his notes, calls our attention to the first bi-plane crash ever staged at Town Hall.

His skill in bringing out the comedic, as well as that of the actors, who have to change directions and characters on a dime, make it work — aided by a nimble backstage crew.

The play is set in 33 scenes — from Hannay’s London apartment to the Highlands and back again.

Presumably, the auditions emphasized fitness as a requirement for the cast — especially for Murphy’s Hannay!


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