The 39 Steps, directed by Joel Sass, runs through December 19 at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis
The 39 Steps, a farce based on Alfred Hitchcock’s spy thriller movie, is getting mixed reviews from critics. They all seem to agree that the performers are really what make the show sing, and that there are a couple of scenes that drag (particularly a bedroom scene in the second half of the show). What varies is how much the occasional flaws effect their enjoyment of the rest of the show. Read on for the details…
It’s the kind of show that depends on establishing a level of absurdity that seems almost spontaneous, yet choreographed to the split second. There are no idle gestures, no throwaway moments, and the physical stuff — there’s plenty of it — has to involve intense precision by all hands…It’s probably no surprise that three of the four cast members — Agnew, Lichtscheidl and Seifert — have past associations with Theatre de la Jeune Lune, because the former company’s signature movement specialties are all over the performances. These are comedy clowns of the first order and they are perfectly complemented by Berdahl, who is the grounded center of the performance and the only actor who has a single role.
Joel Sass’s staging of “The 39 Steps” at the Guthrie Theater gets the formula right, with crisp acting and whimsical stagecraft. Robert O. Berdahl, Jim Lichtscheidl, Luverne Seifert and Sarah Agnew act with the focused commitment necessary for burlesque. A perfect example is Agnew and Berdahl, their characters on the lam and handcuffed together, tangle on a fence rail for what seems hours. Ridiculous situation, played for keeps. Perfect.
Sass demands breakneck action that falters only when the plot turns ordinary (the second-act bedroom scene), but the script generally delights…It can tire you out, all this action. But it’s a good tired, one that rekindles our faith in theater’s capacity to squeeze new life from old forms.
…It’s probably director Joel Sass who is at fault for turning what was bright and effortless on Broadway into a comedy that feels strenuous and broad…He’s an inventive director, even working in the Hitchcock appearance that was a signature of his classic films (actually, there are two Hitchcock “appearances” — an impersonator does the cell phone speech before the play). But Hitchcock was known for his editing virtuosity, and Sass could use some editing.
Some stuff — like a boisterous parade, somehow brought to life by just three people, and Lichtscheidl’s riotous Scottish farmer, who’s a wry spin on Groundskeeper Willie from “The Simpsons” — works beautifully, but many gags are allowed to go on too long.
…As in any sketch-comedy show, some bits work better than others. The high point comes early on, with Agnew’s portrayal of the lusty, consonant-choking German spy Annabella Schmidt; that bit gets the kind of mileage out of schtoop that Beaverdance got out of beaver jokes. The show steadily loses momentum, though, as it becomes clear that it’s just going to be one sketch after another. The production outright stumbles in the second act, as Berdahl and Agnew are allowed to develop a little genuine chemistry and there are suggestions that we should consider caring about the plot. By contrast, the Sass-helmed Mystery of Irma Vep barrelled through the evening with an exciting sense of mounting absurdity, and that conviction made it a more successful show than 39 Steps.
Have you seen The 39 Steps? If so, let us know what you thought!