In the Hands of Slightly Askew, 39 Steps Is a Madcap Caper 

click to enlarge Pete Winfrey and Rachel Tibbetts in The 39 Steps.

Joey Rumpell

Pete Winfrey and Rachel Tibbetts in The 39 Steps.

So, how much of an Alfred Hitchcock fan are you? The answer might determine your ability to enjoy The 39 Steps, Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble's season-ending comedy. It's a spy spoof adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock's film The 39 Steps, which was itself adapted from John Buchan's 1915 novel. But the driving force of the play is Hitchcock and his body of work. If you recognize the Bates Motel or know why Jimmy Stewart is holding binoculars, you'll have no problems keeping up.

Even if you're unfamiliar with Hitchcock's oeuvre, though, you'll probably be fine. I've never sat through an entire Hitchcock film, and somehow I caught these references; Hitch is as much a part of popular culture as he is film history at this point.

Besides, there's so much happening onstage that, even if you don't pick up on the Hitchcock references, you'll be laughing at something else. Director Kirsten Wylder maintains the speedy pace a comedy requires, but allows room to laugh at the jokes, which range from Hitchcockian sight gags, wordplay, rapid-fire costume changes and even the show's extremely tiny budget. There are boxes doubling as cars and trains, a pair of chairs that serve as every interior scene, a wall pierced by three doors and a magnificent plane crash depicted by — you know, words won't do it justice. You really have to see it to believe it.

Pete Winfrey plays Richard Hannay, a 37-year-old man-about-London who is bored with life. His ennui is dispelled by his chance meeting with the mysterious Annabelle Schmidt (Rachel Tibbetts), a German national who disrupts a stage performance by discharging her revolver. In short order they're back at Hannay's flat where an unseen intruder fatally stabs Schmidt, but not before she tells Hannay about a vast conspiracy to smuggle state secrets out of the country in the next few days. Schmidt pins the blame on a shadowy organization called "The 39 Steps" and warns Hannay that his life is now in danger. From here on out, he's on the run.

Winfrey has an excellent English accent and a gift for physical comedy, whether he's wriggling out from underneath a fresh corpse or striking a series of catalog-model poses every time a radio announcer describes him as "handsome." And while Annabel Schmidt dies in the first ten minutes, actress Tibbetts lives on as two more characters: the prim and proper Englishwoman Pamela and the Glaswegian farmer's wife Margaret. She, too, has excellent accent discipline and does a bang-up job slithering out from under a sleeping Hannay later in the play.

Ellie Schwetye and Carl Overly, Jr. play a couple dozen supporting roles each, often in the same scene. Schwetye continues the fine accent work on display in this show with her train conductors, police officers and hired thugs, but she really shines as the menacing but charming Professor Jordan, head of the 39 Steps. Overly hams it up (in a good way) as Mr. Memory, a theatrical performer who claims to know all, but he destroyed me as a farmer with the single worst Scottish brogue I've ever heard in my life. Every time it got away from him Overly shouted his lines with increasing fervor, which only made it funnier.

It's that running-along-the-edge sensibility that makes The 39 Steps so entertaining. There are moments when the production seems to be falling apart — a phone rings after it's picked up, or an actor continues to open and shut a door to see if the sound board operator can keep up with the appropriate sound effect — but it never collapses. It drives forward in a pell-mell fury, and if something's not working, it just gets louder.n

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