Theater Review: Geriatric Espionage

by Bill Marx

The schizophrenia is instructive if somewhat dizzying. At the Calderwood Pavilion, the Huntington Theatre Company kicks off its season with “The Atheist,” a cynical exercise in scatological anti-heroism about a sleazy reporter who blackmails his way to fame. On its main stage at the Boston University Theater the HTC wallows in PG nostalgia with a Broadway-bound version of “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” a 2007 Olivier award-winning lampoon of the director’s 1935 film version of John Buchan’s 1915 espionage classic. Bill Marx

Searching for audiences at a time of demographic upheaval, theaters are turning to extremes, from the simplemindedly immoral to the terminally innocuous.

I am not sure why anyone in the Bourne millennium would want to see a silly stage send-up of the prehistoric spy capers of “The 39 Steps.” Surely even escapism has to be a bit more up to date, even for the tourist crowds on Broadway. Most of the movies currently being remodeled as Broadway entertainments are of post-World War II vintage.

In a trenchant piece on John Buchan in the Atlantic Monthly, Christopher Hitchens neatly sums up the retro appeal of Richard Hannay, the square-jawed hero of Buchan’s best-known book.

The hero Hannay is uninterested in sex, revolted by all forms of cruelty, and ill at ease in the modern world of cleverness and greed and deceit. He is a late-Edwardian version of the strong, silent type that upheld chivalric values while playing “The Great Game,” and he is doomed to see most of his friends immolated in the trenches of the Western Front. But Buchan spanned the gap between Kipling and Fleming, and his stories furnished a crossover point for beginning readers between the straightforward “adventure” book and something resembling the adult novel. I like to think that they still do, and this in spite of their occasional preposterousness (“There are some things,” Hannay reflects near the beginning of Mr. Standfast, “that no one has a right to ask of any white man”).

The novel’s ethos of earnest derring-do was already dated when Hitchcock made his film. You could argue that the director gently spoofs the adolescent machismo of the novel: he updates the action, makes the hero vulnerable by casting the unsupermanish Robert Donat in the role, and adds sex appeal along with some droll comic touches, such as casting an actor who resembled Franklin Delano Roosevelt as the lead German bad guy.

What’s to laugh at today about the story’s antique antics? The stage version of “The 39 Steps” could have poked fun at Buchan’s vision of the Englishman as puritanical savior of the world (there are some hilariously inane academic studies about the writer’s homoerotic subtexts), as well as the secret agent absurdity that runs from Hannay to Bond and Bourne. But the broad script, directed by Maria Aitken and adapted by the British comedian and playwright Patrick Barlow from a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, is hermetically sealed from the present, content to spend most of its time spoofing the Hitchcock film, churning out bad puns on titles of the director’s films as well as snatches of music from “Vertigo” and “Psycho.”

Pamela (Jennifer Frerrin) and Hannay (Charles Edwards) share an intimate moment in “The 39 Steps.”

The goofy approach reminds me of the comic sketches on “The Carol Burnett Show,” but the show doesn’t boast the zany improvisational highs of Harvey Corman and the crew. Most of the japes and caricatures are delivered via a two-ton wink and nudge, an archness that not only kills the suspense but also becomes tiresome once it becomes clear that the jokes themselves are beside the point – we are supposed to admire how the cast pulls the gags off.

Still, the four cast members are zesty lampoonists. Charles Edwards, as the stalward Richard Hannay, is the only holdover from the London production: he brings an impressively casual unflappability (via a permanently cocked eyebrow) to the role. Jennifer Ferrin supplies a slinky German spy with a memorably cracked accent and, handcuffed to Hannay, plays a woman who fears she is bound to a murderer. Two other performers, Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, each billed as a “clown,” play countless other cartoon roles, from German thugs and British inspectors to Scottish farmers. With mercurial speed and skill the pair change identities and accents, move props, turn shower curtains into waterfalls, and manipulate shadow puppets, most memorably the police biplanes on the hunt for Hannay.

The cast’s energy garners some chuckles, but “The 39 Steps” feels calculatingly geriatric, a spy spoof gone slightly arthritic.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps Presented by the Huntington Theatre Company at the Boston University Theatre, Boston, MA, through October 14, 2007


  1. Robert B. on September 25, 2007 at 8:44 am

    I certainly envy Charles Edwards’ coming timing in this, no matter how many times he’s done the role. I thought his stop-on-a-dime timing was remarkable, at least on the night I saw him. But I, too, was pretty surprised that this remake — which used huge chunks of the original screenplay — would win an Olivier award for ‘Best New (?!) Comedy.” But there were also in-jokes that many of the Boston audience probably wouldn’t get — one of the few non-Hitchcock music cues, for instance, was running in the background of flashlights searching over a jet-black stage: the music cue was Georges Auric’s for “Dead of Night.”

  2. Thomas Garvey on September 25, 2007 at 1:47 pm

    I think it’s worth pointing out that the piece (which I was hardly fond of, either) was based entirely on the Hitchcock film, which doesn’t “gently spoof” the Buchan novel, but instead essentially transforms it. (There’s no Madeleine Carroll in the Buchan, and even the term “the 39 Steps” refers to something very different.) Given that Hitchcock is widely credited with bringing the subjective use of the camera to new heights in the cinema, it would seem that an attempt to evoke “The 39 Steps” onstage might lead to many intriguing contrasts between the strengths of the two media. Of course, that didn’t happen – but as the possible conceit of a stage extravaganza, it remains suggestive.

  3. ArtsFuse on September 25, 2007 at 6:23 pm

    I agree that Hitchcock transforms the novel, but in ways that, for me, poke fun at some of the ham-fisted, World War I attitudes in the Buchan. Part of the amusement for ’30s viewers would have been enjoying how Hitchcock sexed up and pepped up the original.

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