Sunday, February 1, 2015

Escaping the inescapable: A thriller that winks at the viewer becomes a farce trailing thrills in "The 39 Steps"

You can hold evil at arm's length by laughing at it, but only temporarily, and perhaps at the cost of a broken arm — as Sony Pictures' misadventure with "The Interview" demonstrated recently.

Between the world wars, Alfred Hitchcock toyed with the free world's attempt to thwart growing tyranny through a clever contrivance of mystery, feints and hair's-breadth escapes known as "The 39 Steps" (1935).

The threat is more explicit in the stage adaptation by Patrick Barlow, which opened over the weekend in an Actors Theatre of Indiana production. At the same time, the laughter — lightening the Hitchcockian theme of an innocent man trying to clear his name — is blown up to monstrous proportions. A monstrosity so thoroughly processed to engage our delight and admiration through humor can be well nigh irresistible. So it proved Saturday night at the Studio Theatre at the Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel.

By Act 2, when Ian McCabe erupts through his suave professor persona into jerky Nazi caricature straight out of "The Great Dictator" and "Dr. Strangelove," any audience resistance to taking this parodic spy caper seriously has been thoroughly tenderized and practically rendered gummable. McCabe, along with ATI artistic director Don Farrell, plays a dizzying host of characters surrounding the dapper, on-the-lam hero. The program booklet succinctly identifies them as Clown #2 and Clown #1, respectively.

For the most part, the efforts of the protagonist, Richard Hanney, to get to the bottom of a puzzling murder in his apartment are literally shackled to the comely Pamela. Gradually and grudgingly, she's converted from being his accuser to his smitten accomplice.

Handcuffed together for reasons too complex to explain comfortably here, Richard and Pamela account for most of the play's appeal on a purely human level, strangers jointly linked by fate. It's ATI's good fortune to have Logan Moore and Lisa Ermel in those roles; their rapport justifies a final scene that, while not in the movie original, is guaranteed to send audiences home with a happier sense of resolution.

The couple's dialogue is heavily dependent on that of the 80-year-old movie, whose yoking of opposites birthed a legacy ranging from "The Defiant Ones" (Sydney Poitier and Tony Curtis) to the Woody Allen comedy in which he tries, with steamy satisfaction, to release himself from being frontally mob-bound to a voluptuous blonde. (The title of that film escapes me; perhaps you readers can identify it.)

Moreover, the scene in which Pamela struggles to remove her damp stockings, with Richard's hand necessarily trailing down her legs, is probably one of the sexiest in the cinema of its era. It was no less effective in this production. I would also single out Ermel's down-to-earth touch in her brief stint as the crofter's wife, Margaret. Even though the stage version requires her to pour on more sensuousness than Hitchcock thought appropriate for Peggy Ashcroft in the film, the portrayal was quite enticing, both gesturally and vocally.

Moore was the only cast member confined to one role, but he made the most of it, apart from neglecting his English accent as the second act got under way. Wearing his bravado on the edge of vulnerability — like a proper farce hero — he cannily combined resourcefulness with desperation. His physical comedy was deft as well, particularly in the early scene where he needs to slide out from under the murder victim's body (Ermel in her initial role as the flamboyant international spy-catcher Annabella Schmidt).

Richard J Roberts' direction had the four actors adroitly teamed, with the two Clowns contributing most of the play's droll intricacy of movement — particularly in the virtuoso train scene. The director's surefootedness failed him somewhat in the political-rally scene where Hanney, mistaken for the guest speaker, stalls for time with an impromptu stem-winder.

Excessive doddering by the two Clowns, to my mind, drained this episode of its satire, which is meant to poke fun at irrelevant coteries on the fringes of English politics. Such groups' cultish, marginal status is what makes the old-timers' welcome to Hanney so funny, not the implication that the hosts seem to have one-and-a-half feet each in the grave.

The cast's feverish movement of props and set pieces was a source of ready-made humor, well in keeping with the amateurish look of slide projections that fill in scenic backgrounds. Identical black-and-white portraits of Hitchcock flanked the stage. One of them was upside down. That seemed about right, as did the recorded antique swing-band music that preceded each act. It suited the show's theatrical jitterbugging to the nth degree.