Reviewed by George Basler
Silliness takes center stage in the Cider Mill Playhouse’s production of The 39 Steps, which opened this past weekend at the Endicott theater.
An energetic cast of four actors, capably directed by Norm Johnson, cavorts across the stage in a comedy that sends up Alfred Hitchcock’s classic 1935 film about an espionage ring in pre-World War II England.
There are plenty of laughs, and some truly hilarious moments. But, like a guest overstaying his welcome, the comic shtick wears a bit thin as the evening progresses. Either because of the original material, or the production itself, the action for me sputters toward the end.
Let me acknowledge my opinion could be a minority one. Many people at the performance I attended seemed to have a good time throughout. The person sitting next to me even voiced the opinion that the show was one of the best things she’s seen at the Cider Mill.
The play by Patrick Barlow, which has been a hit in both London and New York, is a tongue-in-cheek adaptation of the popular 1915 spy novel by John Buchan. But the best-known version is Hitchcock’s film starring the dashing Robert Donat and elegantly beautiful Madeline Carroll.
The play’s plot essentially follows that of the movie. Richard Hannay (Matt Musgrove), a bored, effete young man, goes to the theater alone one night where he meets a mysterious woman (Laura Brennan) with a secret and a thick German accent. She finagles her way back to his apartment where she winds up dead with a knife in her back.
The police, of course, suspect Hannay, who flees to Scotland where he hopes to uncover the leader of the spy ring and clear his name. Along the way he runs into Pamela, a cool blond heroine (Brennan again), who starts out detesting him and ends up falling hard.
He also runs into a steady stream of characters — a milkman, a newsboy, a train conductor, lingerie salesmen, police and spies, to name a few — all played by two actors (Danny Lindgren and Josh Sedelmeyer).
Much of the humor comes from the basically ridiculous premise of having the four-person cast recreate a story that involves scores of characters and a chase across the moors of Scotland.
Making the show work requires skill, team work and split-second timing. Lindgren and Sedelmeyer need to change costumes and accents at a dizzying pace. For the most part, they are up to challenge.
Particularly funny is a scene in which Lindgren transfers himself from a train conductor to a policeman and back again in rapid succession.
Later on, the entire cast hilariously acts out a chase scene on a train. In another funny set piece, Lindgren and Sedelmeyer skillfully play crop dusters trying to machine-gun the hero. This, of course, is a tip of the hat to Hitchcock’s classic North by Northwest.
The play itself is inventive and staged well, but it all becomes a bit repetitious by the end of the second act. Its a great one-hour sketch that has been stretched a bit much.
Musgrove gives a funny performance that catches the character’s humorous befuddlement. He does an especially good job with the physical comedy required by the role. The hero as written is certainly not a dashing one.
Brennan, meanwhile, does a fine job with two of the three characters she portrays. A woman of mystery and then a farmer’s wife are acted well with suitably broad strokes, but the recent Ithaca College graduate fails to convey the heroine’s gorgeous allure.
Credit should go to Tyler M. Perry, scenic and lighting designer; Anna Grigo, costume designer; Patrick Lachance, sound designer, and Alexander Pitt, technical director. They do a first-rate job in filling an essentially bare stage.
Despite some slow spots, The 39 Steps is a pleasant enough diversion. It is a credible start to the Cider Mill’s newest season.
IF YOU GO: The 39 Steps will continue at the Cider Mill Playhouse, 2 S. Nanticoke Ave., Endicott, through Sept. 27. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 3 p.m. Sundays. Tickets are $28 to $32 ($26 for ages 65 and over, and students 18 and under); call 748-7363, or visit www.cidermillplayhouse.com