January 16, 2008

Stumbling on "The 39 Steps"

The funny thing about comedy is that we don’t all laugh at the same things. One person’s guffaw is another’s ho-hum. What makes one person giggle with glee can make another wriggle in discomfort. What got me thinking about all of this is the Roundabout Theatre Company’s production of The 39 Steps, the parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 romantic thriller that opened at the American Airlines Theatre this week.

The conceit of the show is that just four actors recreate all of the movie’s 100 or so speaking parts in its fast-moving story about an innocent man who is swept up in a murderous conspiracy and rushes across England and Scotland trying to clear his name. The movie is considered the greatest of the films that Hitchcock made in England before moving to Hollywood and the stage parody was a great hit in London, even winning an Olivier Award. The New York theater critics seem tickled too. And me? Well, not so much.

My husband K and I are big Hitchcock fans. When we’re at a loss for a DVD to watch, we always know we can count on Hitchcock. We got "The 39 Steps" the weekend before we saw the play and a good thing too. Not only did we thoroughly enjoy the movie but we would have missed out on a bunch of the play’s jokes without it. But even though we got the bits, we didn’t find them as funny as the London fans or the New York critics apparently did.

I certainly can't blame the hard-working cast, particularly Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, who play most of the roles. And the way director Maria Aitken uses simple props—a few chairs, some boxes, sheets, a wooden rectangle—to recreate the film’s special effects, including a race across the top of a moving train and a plane crash, is indisputably clever. Still, instead of rolling with laughter, I was just mildly amused.

Maybe the Brits loved it more because they're more familiar with the movie. Maybe if it has been a staged parody of “Casablanca” or “The Godfather,” it would have hit home more with me. Judging by the polite applause at the curtain call, K and I weren’t the only ones who’d expected to have a better time. As people filed out of their seats after the curtain call, the women sitting in front of us turned around and asked what we thought of the show. We told them. They confessed that although they’d seen the movie years ago, they couldn’t remember most of it and so some of the funny bits had gone right over their heads.

After the show, K and I walked two blocks over to the Algonquin, the old hotel made famous by the writers who lunched at its legendary Round Table in the 1920s. I ordered a vodka cocktail called The Parker in honor of Dorothy Parker, the witty writer, screenwriter and one-time theater critic. Parker—the woman, not the cocktail—went out to Hollywood a year before the original "The 39 Steps" was made and worked on dozens of scripts including the 1937 version of “A Star Is Born.” But it’s her Round Table-era quips that still make me chuckle. The most infamous is probably her critique of a Katharine Hepburn performance: “She runs the gamut of emotions from A to B.” Which, alas, more or less sums up how I felt about The 39 Steps.


Esther said...

Awww, I'm so sorry you were disappointed. I really loved it when I saw it in Boston! I thought it was funny and clever. I thought Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders' character changes were great. I loved the way they did things like the chase aboard the train and all the little shoutouts to different Hitchcock movies. I'd never seen anything like it before, and I was just thoroughly entertained. I definitely agree that it's better if you've seen the movie beforehand.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Thanks, as always, for the comment, Esther, even though on this one, your guffaw is my ho-hum.

Anonymous said...

It's my favourite Hitch and I love the John Buchan book, so I thought this would bowl me over. Instead I was rather ho-hummed by it too. The man beside me had tears of laughter pouring down his face and there was a 50% standing o. Maybe you can be too familiar with the material. But that's not true for Sondheim. Oh well, better to have seen it and been a bit disappointed than not to have and always wonder.

jan@broadwayandme said...

Anonymous, I agree. Even when I don't love a show, I'm glad to have had the chance to see it. And I definitely would have been curious about this one. Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment.