Thursday, September 20, 2007

Stage fright

Too bad Hitch gets it in the back, too.

Nothing seemed more of a sure thing this season than The 39 Steps, the West End transfer that was stopping by the Huntington on its way to Broadway later this year (I mean to ponder that arrangement further in a later post). As I'm a fan of the Hitchcock film (watch the whole movie in streaming video here), and have a special interest in the intersection of screen and stage technique, you can imagine my disappointment as I slowly discovered, once the show's faux curtain rose, that I wasn't going to be treated to a clever, tongue-in-cheek homage to the dated, but delicious, thrills of the original, but would instead be subjected to "Mel Brooks's Young Hitchcock!," a relentless barrage of dumbed-down story-theatre gags that thoroughly patronized its source, the early masterpiece in which the Master found his method: the wrong man accused, the cross-country chase, the icy blonde, and of course the mysterious, but meaningless, "MacGuffin."

Now before you say it, I hardly expected the production to approach the screen version on bended knee, and many of the jokes, it's true, land just where they should, in a pageant of seat-of-the-pants stagecraft: director Maria Aitken deftly finds simple, but effective means of literally tracking Hitchcock's camera over a moving train and down a bridge, and then over the barren moors to Scotland and back again. A particularly inspired sprint of shadowplay - that features not just Hitch's traditional appearance, but a cameo by the Loch Ness Monster - may be worth the price of admission alone. A similar interlude interpolated from North by Northwest (the American offspring of Steps) is likewise a wicked hoot. In general, the show's at its best in shadow (at left); whenever Hitch's hero, Richard Hannay, is tracked by flickering spot- or flash-light, the stage version suddenly evokes the panic of the chase with more spirit than the movie ever did.

But mysteriously, the production seems determined to telegraph the inadequacy of these tricks - even though they often grip us. We're invited to guffaw over and over at the actors' quick changes (but shouldn't those thrill us, too?) - and then double over at their broader-than-the-moors Scottish schtick (much of which would have embarrassed the old Carol Burnett Show).

The end result, of course, is the utter destruction of the film's romance (Madeleine Carroll and Robert Donat handcuffed together, at left) - and it's startling to realize, in retrospect, how central romance was to Hitchcock's classics (ponder, for a moment, Notorious, Rear Window and Vertigo instead of Psycho). Not for nothing does Hitch's hero - who's soon literally chained to his heroine - encounter one unhappily-hitched couple after another (he'd like to escape that fate, too). And let's not forget the picture's political romance - the romance of the individual, if you will, who, thrown into extraordinary circumstances, triumphs through brains, pluck, and a breezily unruffled attitude. Indeed, it's these attributes that made The 39 Steps a classic; Hitch's suspense techniques may nowadays be undermined by the limits of film in 1935, but somehow, over the course of the prolonged chase, a memorable largeness of purpose sneaks in between the mad dashes and double crosses.

But at the Huntington, we're stuck with the diminishing returns of what amounts to artistic tunnel vision. Sure, the hijinx are funny at first - and I was happy to giggle at the all-too-knowing nods to other Hitchcock flicks (while the "soundtrack," as it were, abandons the original entirely for the richer, more menacing harmonies of Bernard Herrmann). But by the umpteenth pratfall, I found myself longing for a bit of debonair derring-do, and by the finale, I was simply staring at my watch. What's most frustrating about the show, in fact, is the persistent sense of how marvelous it could really be: the cast, led by the witty, almost-too-chiseled Charles Edwards, knows exactly what it's doing, and has the confident panache of a team that's long been on the boards; Jennifer Ferrin has enough sex appeal to make us forget all about Madeleine Carroll, and Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders barely break a sweat impersonating over 100 other characters. If only they somehow had captured the character of the original.

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