An affectionate homage to the Hitchcock classic of the same name, 39 Steps—currently enjoying a revival Off Broadway at NYC’s Union Square Theatre after a successful stint on the Main Stem in 2008-10—may draw heavily upon its source material, but author Patrick Barlow and director Maria Aitken have created a unique piece of screwball comedy to call their own.
As in the Hitchcock original, Richard Hannay (played here by Robert Petkoff) finds himself embroiled in a spy vs. spy conspiracy; barely keeping himself a step ahead of the cops and assorted shady evildoers, he seeks to restore his good name and save his country from certain doom—plot, character, and even entire lines of dialogue come straight out of the 1935 film, but where Barlow’s Tony-nominated adaptation differs is tone. With four actors wearing—literally, at times—multiple hats, this loving sendup is part madcap romance, part mistaken-identity thriller, and pure absurdity.
Displaying more than a touch of Monty Python-esque élan, the willing cast embraces the play’s inherent silliness with good humor and impeccable physicality. Newcomer Brittany Vicars (playing a trio of different females) shows off keen comedic timing as she switches from femme fatale to wide-eyed innocent with comely aplomb, while Petkoff (All the Way) anchors the proceedings with a winking nod to leading-man gravitas—his Hannay echoes the film version’s unjustly accused man-on-the-run, with the addition of a near-perfect Cary Elwes-style posh accent for good measure. Billy Carter earns plenty of laughs as Clown #2, but Arnie Burton, reprising the role he originated in the play’s Broadway run, steals the show. In the guise of Clown #1, he bounces from newsboy to traveling salesman to pantomime villain, to name a few, gleefully breaking the fourth wall with contagious enthusiasm.
The spare set is a blank canvas for the ongoing shenanigans—against a spartan backdrop, actors manipulate the stage layout at will. Windows appear out of thin air, doors are maneuvered into place, and, thanks to the magic of make-believe and a set of kitchen chairs, voila! A car! At times, it feels a bit like a backyard production from the neighborhood kids, but Hitchcock himself couldn’t have helped cracking a smile at the self-referential hijinks. B+