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Rapid-fire Laughs: City Stage Co. nails it with espionage comedy ‘The 39 Steps’

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City Stage Co’s current production of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps,” adapted by Patrick Barlow, is a theatrical tour de force. John Buchan published the novel “The Thirty-Nine Steps” in 1915. In 1935 Alfred Hitchcock directed the first major film adaptation of the book. Though several other film and television adaptations have come since, the 1935 production is still considered the definitive one, even though it differs from the book considerably. 1995 saw the beginning of a four-person stage adaptation. In 2005 Patrick Barlow premiered this adaptation in the UK.

The concept of the show is delightful: part musical hall comedy, part Hitchcock homage, part Charles Ludlam. And, overall, it is all delightful. Richard Hannay (Jason Aycock) functions as the narrator and lead character. Hannay is feeling bored and at loose ends when he decides to go to the music hall to see Mr. Memory (Brett J. Young) perform. There is a strange woman, Annabella Schmidt (Heather Setzler), who fires a gun and kidnaps Hannay to his own apartment. Setzler kicks off the first outrageous but entertaining accent of the evening. More follow at a rapid-fire pace.

Annabella is murdered in Hannay’s apartment but first leaves him with an oversized map of Scotland and a series of confusing clues about an espionage caper that would cripple Britain in the coming war. Hannay sets off toward Scotland to try to unravel the mystery, clear his name of the murder charge, and if possible, save the nation.

Christopher Rickert and Brett J. Young are billed as Clown 1 and 2 (respectively). Between the actors, they play almost all of the characters—with the exception of Hannay and the three women that Setzler portrays. A small smattering of their adventures include: two tough guys, a Scottish innkeeper and his wife, a double agent and his wife, two traveling salesmen, police officers, political operatives, airplane pilots, and musical-hall performers. 

With a cast of four taking on this many roles in such a fast-paced show, the casting definitely proved half the battle for director Chandler Davis. Clearly, she struck gold. Real-life couple Heather Setzler and Jason Aycock are well-known to musical-going audiences. Both are triple threats, as they sang and danced their way into audiences’ hearts years ago. 

Jason Aycock as the handsome, dark-haired, dissolute, but deep down good hearted Richard Hannay, absolutely stuns.  He tackles the part with a straight face but a twinkle in his eye—the perfect blend of farce and in-on-the-joke for this show. I think it is the first time I’ve seen him onstage in a non-singing and dancing role. His talent as an actor is just as compelling as his dancing and singing gifts (and when I say his musical theatre gifts are compelling, I mean, I secretly believe that Aycock is the reincarnation of Gene Kelly), but his musical-theatre abilities are so spectacular they usually overshadow his skill for acting and comedy.

Setzler meets every challenge Aycock’s Hannay throws at her various personas. More so, she ups the ante time and time again. It seems absurd to say their chemistry is great, but like many famous acting couples (Tracy and Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall), they really do complement each other and pull something special to the fore.

Two other more appropriately people could not have been found, like Rickert and Young, to play the clowns. Christopher Rickert is blessed with height, gravitas and a beautiful singing voice. As such, he finds himself frequently cast in musicals not as the young lover, but either a sidekick or respectable guy. It is rare we get to see his silly side come out onstage, but he is bursting with comedic talent and is truly having so much fun in this role. So much so, it is infectious to watch him. Anyone who saw him as Bob Wallace in “White Christmas” will be a bit shocked to see him as the wife of a Scottish innkeeper. I believed him entirely.

Brett J. Young is one of the founding members of Pineapple-Shaped Lamps (PSL), Wilmington’s nationally recognized sketch comedy and shadow cast troupe. Seeing Young as “zany” is not new, but the experience that his co-performers bring to this show pushed his own performance. This is by far the best work I have seen from him. His characters are distinct,
compelling, and when the big reveal occurs, his rendition of Mr. Memory is quite touching.

There is another uncredited performer in this show and that is  stagehand Jon Wallin. Part of the conceit of the script and design concept is various set pieces (windows, doors, lights, etc.) are introduced and frequently held in place by cast members and occasionally the stage hand. Wallin manages to tread a line between “you don’t see me” and a smile reminiscent of Chico Marx asking, “It’s a pretty good show, eh?”

The cast manages to reproduce a scene climbing along the outside of a moving train that creates palpably genuine motion. Then they turn around and change the rules of physics for how windows are supposed to operate—all with a wink and nod. The scenic design is very stripped-down, which puts a lot of emphasis on costumes and lighting. Costumer Lance Howell gives Hannay and Setzler’s characters very detailed threads. But for the clowns—who have constant quick changes—some even onstage while talking to themselves as multiple different characters—he has opted for a selection of hats, wigs and one or two defining pieces. It works beautifully.

Beau Mumford’s lighting complements the action of the show, which moves from the stage to the audience several times, and highlights where the audience’s attention should go. In a show this complicated, he manages to help the audience feel “in the know.” We tend to recognize design and technical achievements when they are overwhelming with big “awe” factors. Sometimes, simplicity is harder.  With a show like this, if the visual pieces aren’t there it would fail miserably and quickly. The team has put together an amazing balance, making everything not only work but sizzle and pop with excitement.

The script is funny, smart and chocked full of Hitchcock references outside of just “The 39 Steps.” But more importantly, all the pieces have come together to make something greater than the sum of the parts. It truly is a theatrical tour de force.

The 39 Steps
March 25-27, and April 1-3
Tickets: $20-$25
City Stage • 21 N Front St #501

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