A spy thriller with Monty Python comedy, Alfred Hitchcock overtones, and multiple characters being played by a mere four actors: That’s the beating heart of Patrick Barlow’s “The 39 Steps,” which debuted onstage in 2007 and won the Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 2007, as well as Drama Desk and Tony awards in 2008.
Based on the Hitchcock film of the same name—which took its focus from John Buchan’s 1915 adventure novel, “The Thirty-Nine Steps”—the play centers on a British man framed for murdering a German spy. Thus, he goes on the lam amidst a police manhunt, all the while trying to solve the crime and clear his name.
“As soon as I was hired at City Stage Co. last summer, I began thinking about ‘The 39 Steps,’” says Chandler Davis, who acts as managing director now and will be directing the show. “I had first seen the show back in 2011, and I knew the style and look would be a perfect fit for our theatrical space.”
It’s the first “straight play” City Stage Co. has done in a year. The theatre company is well-known for taking risks with musical theatre that’s often edgy and reaches beyond classic Broadway standards. “I wanted something that would be as lively and entertaining as many people know some musicals are,” Davis says. “The 39 Steps” gets the comedic treatment, as to ensure audiences never lack for entertainment. As well, it’s known for its heft of talent. Four actors must take on a daunting 20 or so roles.
“I had [to choose] four people who were smart, easy to work with, and really understood this particular style of comedy,” Davis says. She cast husband-and-wife team Jason Aycock and Heather Setzler, each of whom are known for their acting, dancing and singing chops across multiple genres of plays, from “Avenue Q” to “Mary Poppins.” Chris Rickert and Brett Young—who will switch characters the most, each with a different accent and vocal pitch—fill out the cast.
“They really did their research,” Davis tells. “Their characters even have different dialects. They were so prepared that it left little room for confusion once we began staging the show.”
Aycock is the protagonist, Richard Hannay. He is the only actor in the show who will play one role. A cine-noir thriller fan, Aycock grew up watching Hitchcock on “Nick at Night.”
“When I directed ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ a few years ago, it was Hitchcock and Rod Serling that really molded my vision for the show,” Aycock says. “The best part about ‘The 39 Steps’ is it retains so much of the story but really takes the telling of it and turns it on its ear.”
Aycock hasn’t acted in a straight play for two years now. Mostly he’s been tied to the theatre scene’s many musicals. He last assisted with the direction of Opera House Theatre Company’s “Carousel.” Plus, his choreography talents are often desired.
“I’m used to musicals that build toward a song in each scene, so this has been different in feeling a different tempo as we go,” he explains. “But [this show is] incredibly clever in its use of comedy. There are so many facets to it. In each scene, you span the gamut of broad, physical comedy to puns to some really high-end word play.”
His wife, Setzler, agrees on the complex use of language in the show. The fast-paced rhythm and British deadpans make it rich with humor.
“They have such a snappy way with words and almost every line is funny,” she adds. “Some things are subtle and others are overtly funny, but it’s all extremely witty.”
Setzler will take on three roles, including international spy, Annabella Schmidt and a naive Scottish housewife, Margaret. However, her main role as Pamela, the yin to Hannay’s yang, is a proper Brit. “[She] eventually falls for his charming, roguish ways, although I’m not quite sure how!” Setzler says. “It’s hard to remember who I am and how to talk sometimes! Good thing all the ladies in some way fall for Richard, so at least they have that in common.”
Not only will “The 39 Steps” rotate its numerous actors, it will have set challenges, too. Davis has to stage numerous chases, from planes, trains to automobiles, plus window jumps and bridge-fallings. In fact, 15 various locations take place in the 72-hour plotline of the play. Chris Keenan is building the set. “There is no way to design this show without charts and lists and lots of erasers,” Davis quips. “We’ve tried to be creative and efficient at the same time.”
Beau Mumford is behind light design and Lance Howell is doing costumes, while John DeVeaux is designing sound. “John is basically the fifth cast member,” Davis says. “I’ve never seen a show with so many sound cues. . . . and I can’t even count how many wigs, hats and coats are in the show. The are lots of quick changes and costume-tracking happening.”
The skillset required of all its players astounds Davis each day during rehearsal. Blocking is that of choreography in a sense. So much has to syncopate and fall in line, according to Davis. “I keep saying things to Jason like, ‘Climb that thing, and then run around here, and then create this picture, and be funny. Now, do your page-long speech.’ He always looks me right in the eye and says, ‘OK.’”