Hitchcock's '39 Steps' at the Walnut (2nd review)

Teaching Hitchcock a thing or two

Hodge, Riopelle: Quick-change artists. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)
Hodge, Riopelle: Quick-change artists. (Photo: Mark Garvin.)

Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 spy thriller, based on John Buchan's novel, has a convoluted and improbable plot that I've never found entertaining. The great director didn't make his best movies until the '50s. But his black-and-white film of The 39 Steps is a perfect vehicle for a spoof. And the brilliant writer Patrick Barlow (whose credits fill a column in the Playbill), along with Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, created one that has become a contemporary hit.

It was imported from England to Broadway, where I first saw it. Regional theaters across the U.S. and Europe continue to put on productions.

Since only four people play 140 characters, they must be first-rate. Actually, the hero, David Hess, is always the charming, falsely accused murderer Richard Hannay, and his real-life wife, Joan Hess, plays only three roles. So the bulk of the work falls to the marvelous "clowns," Paul Riopelle and Dan Hodge, who transform themselves like magicians in the blink of an eye.

I last saw them in the excellent Travels With My Aunt, upstairs at the Walnut's Independence Studio on 3. These quick-change artists appear in so many guises, it's hard to recognize them, let alone keep track of them. If advance word and the program didn't give it away, I'd bet most audiences would be fooled into thinking a cast of dozens was at work.

If Riopelle and Hodge are upstaged by anything, it's the fabulous theatrics: the ingeniously simple sets, the brilliant sound and light, the special effects. The audience travels from foggy London town up to a castle in Scotland by a train composed of only a few trunks. Chairs suffice for an automobile.

Each scene is a delightful surprise. In addition to the sounds of barking dogs, gunshots and wind, snippets of soundtrack from Hitchcock's most famous films are periodically played. I recognized themes from Psycho, North by Northwest, Vertigo and Marnie.

There are sight gags, too: Characters escape through window frames in homage to Rear Window, and a flock of sparrows congregate ominously on a sign, in a not-so-subtle reference to The Birds. I think Hitchcock would have been delighted. This 39 Steps is part vaudeville, part farce, all hilarious, and better than the film on which it's based. It's in glorious color, too.♦


To read another review by Jackie Atkins, click here.




Sign Up For Our Newsletter

Want previews of our latest stories about arts and culture in Philadelphia? Sign up for our newsletter.