The updated stage version of Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film, The 39 Steps, was a hit in London and New York but hardly a masterpiece. The Broadway production seemed like a mechanized stunt that substituted legerdemain for substance, and a revival in England was criticized as silly. Theatre Horizon’s dazzling new production, on the other hand, is a noteworthy achievement.
Matt Pfeiffer’s staging, with a set by Samina Vieth, moves some action into the seated area, thus involving the audience. The production also adds visual references to Hitchcock, rendering the play more an homage to the great film director and less of a snarky send-up. (For example, a character enters sideways with a protruding belly resembling Hitchcock’s, accompanied by his TV theme song.) And where the Broadway version invited us to snicker at the film’s plot, at Horizon a splendid cast takes it seriously, thereby retaining the original’s drama.
Hitchcock had a penchant for the everyman hero who stumbles unwittingly into an espionage or assassination plot. Here it’s Richard Hannay (Damon Bonetti), who’s bored with his uneventful life and fed up with 1930s newspapers bearing articles about “wars and rumors of war.” Deciding to spend an evening on something "utterly pointless, mindless, and trivial," he heads to the theater, thus eliciting an appreciative laugh from the audience.
At the theater, Hannay sees gunshots interrupt a memory expert before he has to answer a question: “What are the 39 steps?” So, what are they? They are a device Hitchcock called a MacGuffin — a driving force in the plot that’s actually just a diverting gimmick. In this case, we expect the steps to be a geographic place, whereas it turns out to be a spy organization. This device leads to an extended chase by Hannay to stop spies while escaping the police who believe him to be a murderer.
Damon Bonetti represented the hero with the pencil mustache (Robert Donat in the film) with suavity. Genevieve Perrier portrayed all of the three disparate women with whom he tangles — a mysterious foreign woman in black, an elegant blonde on a train, and a suspicious Scottish housewife.
Adam Altman and Steve Pacek played every other character with ingenuity and lightning-quick changes of coats, hats, bowlers, caps, bobbies’ helmets, or tam-o’-shanters. Perrier, Altman, and Pacek interpreted their multiple parts broadly, which contrasted nicely with Bonetti’s restrained unflappability.
The script already contained allusions to other Hitchcock films, like Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, and this production made them more vivid. Matt Pfeiffer’s direction provided many awesome moments, such as shadows behind a white sheet evoking an airplane chase above the Scottish highlands.
In this production, I found myself actually caring about the outcome. And with its train chases, plane crashes, multitudinous other visual stunts, and some excellent verbal puns, Horizon’s production is superb entertainment.