There’s nothing quite like a Hitchcock thriller to engage audiences. And there’s nothing like a parody of the director’s exuberant suspended exercises to make them helplessly laugh for them.
That’s the effect of “The 39 Steps,” the outrageously hilarious play that runs through April 10 in a terrific production from the Repertory Theater of St. Louis. Directed by Kate Bergstrom, a cast of four perform playwright Patrick Barlow’s fast-paced spy spoof. And does it matter that a lot of what happens doesn’t necessarily make a lot of sense? Not at all.
Ryan Colbert plays Richard Hannay, the hero of the 1935 Hitchcock film and the John Buchan novel on which it was loosely based. Dapper and sure of himself, Hannay is so easily bored and somewhat disappointed that the only option open to him seems to be going to the theater.
But that’s where he meets a mysterious woman (Olivia Gilliatt) who turns out to be in mortal danger. Soon after, Hannay is on the run from a murder charge, with his own life in constant danger. And whether he’s hanging from a bridge or dealing with a deceitful blond (again Gilliatt) to whom he finds himself handcuffed, the Hitchcockian plot only deepens.
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Colbert brings true star quality to Hannay, portraying the character as basically unflappable but not without moments of self-reflection and insecurity. Although there is a hint of Tom Hanks in his approach to the role, he also makes it his own. And his comedic timing couldn’t be more fitting.
Gilliatt puts just the right spin on Hitchcock’s heroine, imbuing her characters with a mix of intelligence and sensuality reminiscent of Grace Kelly in “Rear Window”, Kim Novak in “Vertigo” and Eva Marie Saint in “North by Northwest”.
The cast also includes Jimmy Kieffer and Futaba Shioda, who deliver splendid performances as a dizzying variety of characters. A particular highlight is a scene in which they take on multiple roles by donning different hats.
Bergstrom delivers a whirlwind of spectacle, with a spirit and precision worthy of Monty Python or the Marx Brothers. And stage design by Stephanie Osin Cohen, lighting design by Christina Watanabe, and costume design by Tilly Grimes combine beautifully to achieve a proper cinematic look and feel.
As accessible to aficionados as it is to casual fans of Hitchcock films, “The 39 Steps” is a must-see show that’s packed with comedic exuberance and imaginative direction. And proof that when it’s done well, theater is anything but boring.