Armed with valuable knowledge, Mr. Richard Hannay is on the run in an international chase that involves planes, trains and the occasional herd of sheep.
He’s a crafty fellow with wavy hair and a pencil-thin moustache, and he’s quite good at the last-minute escape. He likes whiskey with soda, ham-and-tomato sandwiches and women.
And, he’s innocent.
Set in pre-war London in 1935, “The 39 Steps” is an Alfred Hitchcock-meets-Monty Python crime comedy, with one audience member remarking it was “a little more Python than Hitchcock.”
Though it’s based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan and the 1935 movie by Alfred Hitchcock, “The 39 Steps” was only first done as a play in 2005 in a West Yorkshire Playhouse, and then on Broadway in 2008. It was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 2008, and given Tonys for Best Lighting and Best Sound Design the same year.
The lighting and sound are only part of the play’s magic, as more than 150 characters are portrayed by a cast of just four.
Richard Hannay (David Hess) finds himself caught in the middle of an international spy case after the seductive Annabella Schmidt (Joan Hess) unloads some powerful information on him in his London flat just before she topples over, with a knife in her back.
The crooks are onto her, but it appears that Hannay is responsible for her death. He hits the road, ready to deliver this secret tip about the “The 39 Steps” to the proper authorities in Scotland, and quickly discovers he’s the target of a manhunt.
In Buchan’s novel and Hitchcock’s movie, the chase from London to Alt Na Shellach and back to London is a serious endeavor, but in the “Steps” it’s full of comic relief that involves suspending belief, creative design elements and two very talented clowns (Patrick Richwood and Bjorn Johnson).
The new Hurst Theater’s lighting and sound system make it possible for set changes like actors leap-frogging across the top of a high-speed train to sheep farmers in a foggy, Scottish countryside. In our world, special effects and big budgets sometimes leave little to the imagination, but “The 39 Steps” shows that ingenuity is still alive—and often funnier.
At times, the two clowns play more than one character on stage at a time, leading to hilarious costume swaps, flying hats and a mish-mash of British, Scottish and German accents.
The husband-and-wife team made up by David and Joan Hess not only play the lead roles, but direct and assistant direct the production, respectively. Both return to Aspen, after David Hess played Daddy Warbucks in last year’s production of “Annie,” and Joan Hess starred in “Same Time, Next Year,” “Chapter Two,” “Annie” and “Spelling Bee.”
Their onstage chemistry and comfort makes running from the law and evil-doers—at the same time—an entertaining romp full of twist and turns and a budding romance.
It’s nonstop fun, which leaves the actors sometimes breathless, and the audience too.
“The 39 Steps”
Presented by Theatre Aspen
Opens Friday, July 27 (6:30 p.m.)
Shows Monday-Saturday, through Aug. 18
Hurst Theater in Rio Grande Park
Tickets: $45 and up