Friday, November 4, 2016

Applause! Applause! Review of The 39 Steps at The Gallery Players by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens

This review of The 39 Steps at The Gallery Players was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 6 (2016) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!

The 39 Steps
Directed by Mark Gallagher
Starring Allister Austin, Amanda Baxter,
Whit Leyenberger & Kayla Ryan Walsh
The Gallery Players 
199 14th Street
Park Slope, New York 11215
Reviewed 11/3/16

The 39 Steps is a parody of the 1935 film made by Alfred Hitchcock, which was loosely based on the 1915 novel written by John Buchan. The original concept and production of a four-actor version of the story, which premiered in 1995 at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond, North Yorkshire (England), was the inspiration of Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. Patrick Barlow rewrote the script in 2005, keeping the scenes and staging. This readaptation premiered at the West Yorkshire Playhouse and was eventually transferred to the Criterion Theatre in London's West End where it played for nine years (closing on September 5, 2015) making it the fifth longest running play in West End history. The play first opened in the United States at the Boston University Theatre (produced by the Huntington Theatre Company) on September 19, 2007. Billed as Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, it transferred to the Cort Theatre on April 28, 2008, and eventually to the Helen Hayes Theatre on January 21, 2009 where it closed on January 10, 2010 after 771 performances. It opened Off-Broadway at New World Stages on March 25, 2010. The Broadway production won two Tony Awards for Best Lighting Design and Best Sound Design.

The play contains 33 scenes performed during two acts. All the actors in this production are extremely talented. Alister Austin does a fine job playing Richard Hannay, the bored 37-year old, who is excited about being caught up in the intrigue that allows him to be of service to King and Country. Amanda Baxter shows amazing versatility portraying three women with distinct personalities (Annabella Schmidt, Pamela & Margaret) with whom Hannay has romantic flirtations. Whit Leyenberger and Kayla Ryan Walsh play Clown 1 and Clown 2. Both successfully depict scores of different people at dizzying speed. My two favorites were the roles performed in drag: Ms. Walsh playing Prof. Jordan, the male Nazi spy, and Mr. Leyenberger pulling off Mrs. McGarigle, the sexually adventurous hostess of The McGarigle Hotel. While all the actors contributed equally to the high quality of this production, the standout performer, in my opinion, was Whit Leyenberger. Whether playing a poor, jealous Scottish crofter or a large baby in diapers, his extraordinary talent, and charismatic stage presence, made every scene he was in just a little better than it might have been otherwise. For example, when he and Ms. Walsh were playing ladies' underwear salesmen sharing a train compartment with Mr. Hannay, who was recently accused of murder, both actors used every opportunity provided by the small space to touch the strikingly handsome Richard Hannay in every way possible. It was absolutely hilarious but Whit Leyenberger went that extra step further when he backed up pressing his backside into Mr. Hanney's crossed knee. Brilliant!

The plot is very much the same as it was in the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie. The Thirty-Nine Steps, an organization of German spies headed by Prof. Jordan who is missing the top joint of his right pinky finger, has stolen information vital to Britain's air defense (i.e. the design for a silent aircraft engine). Annabella Schmidt is killed for trying to stop him but not before she reveals part of what she knows to Richard Hannay, who is accused of her murder. He takes the express train to Alt-na-Shellach in Scotland. He is betrayed by a woman (twice), jumps from a train, spends a night in a barn, gives a political speech, is shot by the villain who's bullet is stopped by a crofter's hymn book, escapes from the police, and returns to the London Palladium just in time to foil the enemy's plans by figuring out how Prof. Jordan intends to get the information out of the country. Mr. Memory is asked, "What are the 39 Steps?" and just before he is shot dead by Prof. Jordan, he answers, "The 39 Steps is an organization of spies, collecting information on behalf of the Foreign Office of..." We never find out why the spy cell calls itself by that name nor who Annabella Schmidt intended to meet in Scotland in her efforts to stop Prof. Jordan. In the end, as you might expect would take place in a 1930s film, Richard Hannay and Pamela fall in love, get married, and live happily ever after.

To add some background and insight to help you better enjoy this play, I should mention the original adventure novel, The Thirty-Nine Steps, written in 1915 by John Buchan was the first of five novels featuring Richard Hannay, an all-action hero with a stiff upper lip and a miraculous knack for getting himself out of sticky situations. Mr. Buchan described the book as a "shocker" by which he meant the events in the story are unlikely and the reader is only just able to believe they really happened. In the book, the ring of German spies is called The Black Stone. The mysterious phrase "Thirty-Nine Steps" first mentioned by the character Franklin Scudder (Annabella Schmidt's predecessor) in the book holds the key to determining how The Black Stone intends to get the stolen secret information out of England. Hannay eventually realizes the phrase "the thirty-nine steps" could refer to the landing point in England from which the spy is about to set sail. With the help of British military leaders and a knowledgeable Coastguard, they eventually figure out the spy is leaving on a boat from a coastal town in Kent where you would find a path down to the beach from a cliff that has thirty-nine steps. According to John Buchan's son, William, the name of the book originated when the author's daughter was counting the stairs at a private nursing home in Broadstairs, where Buchan was convalescing ill in bed with a duodenal ulcer. He wrote, "There was a wooden staircase leading down to the beach. My sister, who was about six, and who had just learnt to count properly, went down them and gleefully announced: there are 39 steps." Sometimes later, the house was demolished and a section of the stairs, complete with a brass plaque, was sent to Buchan.

The 39 Steps may not be everyone's cup of tea. There are times when the plot is absolutely ridiculous and tedious, as when Mr. Hannay is trying to keep the blinds down in his flat. There are also some performances that are annoyingly overacted, such as Amanda Baxter's portrayal of Annabella Schmidt. Kayla Ryan Walsh's sexually suggestive tongue action when playing Prof. Jordan was just weird and out of place. That having been said, there are also moments of brilliance and hilarity throughout the play. Many, in fact, that will amaze you! It is hard for me to predict your reaction. One audience member in the front row fell asleep after a few minutes and snored through the entire show. Others offered up enthusiastic applause for the excellent cast, who gave it their all. If you have seen The 39 Steps before and liked it, you will not be disappointed with this production. If you haven't seen it, this is a perfect opportunity to see a high-quality presentation of this classic for a very reasonable price. My favorite line in the play was when the Sheriff said to Mr. Hannay, "You shut your mouth when you're talking to me!"

You can catch The 39 Steps at The Gallery Players through November 13, 2016. Tickets are $25.00 for adults and $20.00 for seniors and children. To purchase tickets, call 212-352-3101 or visit 

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