It’s too bad Ben Beck wasn’t overweight when he started rehearsing as the leading man in The 39 Steps. He’d have shed any extra pounds during its six-week run at the Blue Barn.
Instead he gains the chance to be a 1930s Hollywood hero ala Alfred Hitchcock, whose portly presence even shows up silhouetted in as fast-paced an action comedy as you’ll ever see on stage. He’s helped by a comely and curvaceous Kirstin Kluver as a German spy and two other characters, plus Bill Grennan and Ablan Roblin in too many roles to count.
Believe me, the four actors have to be tremendous to bring off this spoof and not be overshadowed by virtuoso technical support. I can’t recall enjoying a sound track this much and I’ll only make one feeble attempt to capture its delicious quality:
After a melodramatic cinema-style instrumental fanfare, we find Beck’s Richard Hannay, sheltering Kluver’s Annabella Schmidt in his London flat where she’s fled after firing off a shot in a theater. She asks for something to eat and he offers “haddock,” which triggers as heavy a musical chord as if he’d announced the end of the world.
In a story that starts with Hannay in a stuffed chair, pipe in hand, and musing about his boring existence, we’re soon off and running to Scotland with Hannay escaping the charge of murdering Annabella who winds up in his lap with a knife in the back. On its sold-out opening weekend, I’d be surprised if much of the crowd didn’t declare it one of their favorite moments among two hours of such delights when Beck worms out from under Kluver’s “corpse.”
No longer bored, Hannay notes in vintage dialogue that his flight “gets the old ticker pumping again,” and eventually in an homage to Frank Capra delivers a stirring speech about “Making this world a better place.”
The sheer genius of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of John Buchan’s novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s movie is matched in every facet by the direction of Susan Clement Toberer, the lighting of Carol Wisner and in a sound design that poses a problem only when it comes to handing out honors. The brilliant sound track was designed by Miles Polaski, a Chicagoan, for a Virginia theater, and coordinated by the Barn’s Martin Magnuson. I’d solve the problem by honoring both.
Hitchcock himself isn’t the only figure silhouetted. We even get Beck’s fleeing fugitive fighting off airplanes, in King Kong fashion, in the Scottish highlands.
If any single scene captures the crazy style and hyper pace of this sendup, it’s when Beck’s flight puts him on a train with Grennan and Roblin, identified only as Clowns 1 and 2. The pair riffs along with a comic patter, switches characters by switching hats and generally races around all night long unless they’re huddling under a lamppost in trench coats.
Roblin does a vaudevillean bit as Mr. Memory and Grennan portrays the likes of a gruff Scottish crofter, a chirpy hotelier and the villainous Nazi professor, not mention assorted lawmen. And yet there’s room for romance, including a sexy bedroom scene where the handcuffed Hannay and the perky Pamela stop bickering long enough for her to slip seductively out of her nylon stockings.
(Yes, Kluver is a marvelous talent, with wide-ranging award-winning roles, and yet I enjoy offending some readers by referring to less ethereal qualities. Sorry, but her beauty and, shall we say, fitness, are part of the appeal of these roles.)
Suffice it to say, the choice of this play and superb casting again represent the Blue Barn at its best.
Although there’s a minimalist approach to dressing the stage, designer Martin Scott Machitto provided some distinctive touches that stand out. There’s a red curtain that adds to the vaudeville feel by not covering the width of the stage, and two box seats high on either side of the front of the seating area provide a unique way to bring the action to the audience.
It doesn’t hurt that characters occasionally squeeze through rows of spectators. One young man sitting near us seemed baffled by the play, but you don’t need to be familiar with The 39 Steps to catch a style familiar from a decade of black-and-white thrillers.
This two-hour romp set a record with 771 performances on Broadway, and it kept running for years on London’s West End after winning the Olivier award. The only surprise is that we haven’t seen it sooner in Omaha. Even at a time when wonderful shows are running at the Omaha Community Playhouse, Brigit St. Brigit, Chanticleer and others, this may be the toughest ticket in town.
The 39 Steps runs through June 15, 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 6 p.m. Sunday shows May 19 and June 2; no show May 16, Blue Barn Theatre, 614 S. 11th St. Tickets are $25, $20 for seniors, students, groups of ten and more. Call 402.345.1576.