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Channeling Hitchcock

The 39 Steps Lead from the Huntington to Broadway
By SALLY CRAGIN  |  September 4, 2007
Charles Edwards in the British production of The 39 Steps

The 39 Steps | Huntington Theatre Company | Boston University Theatre, 264 Huntington Ave, Boston | September 14–October 14 | $15-$75 | 617.266.0800
The classic British hero is cool, collected, witty, slightly bored, well-mannered, and possessed of lightning-fast reflexes when needed. “We have a whole line of heroes — Bulldog Drummond and James Bond,” explains British actor and director Maria Aitken, who’s helming the new adaptation of the Alfred Hitchcock film The 39 Steps that’s set for Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company and then Broadway.

In the 1935 Hitchcock film, the steadfast, firm-jawed ex-serviceman is Richard Hanney, who’s played by the elegant Robert Donat. But this The 39 Steps is a comic adaptation of the film (and the 1915 John Buchan novel on which it was based) by English actor/writer Patrick Barlow. After opening at London’s Tricycle Theatre last year, the play scored the 2007 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy and transferred to the West End, where it’s booked through 2008.

In addition to mixing some Monty Python into its Hitchcock, Barlow’s play is a stripped-down affair, utilizing just four actors in more than 100 roles. Only hero Hanney is spared the multiple casting; he’ll be played by British actor Charles Edwards, who reprises his role in the British production. And, yes, the complicated and improbable journey taken by Hanney (after a woman is murdered in his room, he flees cross-country) is faithfully rendered on stage, with effects both high- and low-tech. “We have three different kinds of smoke,” notes Aitken.

Hitchcock’s 18th film and breakthrough project, The 39 Steps boasts all the elements that came to define his classic style: the icy blonde, the mad dashes on and off public transportation, the double-dealing spies, the droll and understated punch lines. Aitken and her casts have seen the movie dozens of times. “It’s surprisingly funny when you see it again — you realize it’s a comedy thriller, and some of our best lines are Hitchcock’s.”

Aitken also points out that “Hitchcock transformed the original 1915 book by putting a woman in the film — he felt that was a grave omission.” At the Huntington, all three female roles are played by Jennifer Ferrin. “It’s marvelous to find an American girl who can slide effortlessly into these three types,” says the director. Madeleine Carroll plays the “icy blonde” role in the film; here, says Aitken, the part is “more Garbo-esque.”

As for the conceit of this The 39 Steps, Aitken likens it to a project undertaken by a small amateur theater company, its capacities taxed to the limit. “They’ve got a leading man who’s prepared to play Richard Hanney, and a leading lady who’s prepared to play three roles, and then two old vaudevillians who’ve shared digs and had a double act for years together. It’s decided they’re going to do this play, so the leading lady reluctantly pushes a bit of furniture about when she has to, and the clowns do everything else. The unwritten subtitle should be: ‘There Aren’t Enough of Us.’ ”

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