It’s a political scandal. Oh wait, it’s an unsolved murder. Or it could be the slow caress of an ankle. Quick! It’s on the run.
It’s (pause for effect) "The 39 Steps" (cue dramatic music).
Now playing at Syracuse Stage, "The 39 Steps" is a co-production with the Cleveland Play House. Based on the Alfred Hitchcock film, which is based on the John Buchan novel, the story is an almost scene-for-scene, play-by-play of Hitchcock’s film. And it's funny. Very, very funny.
There is also a version playing Off Broadway.
A British man Richard Hannay (Nick Sandys) finds himself being framed for murder, which causes him to go on the run to find the culprit and uncover a nefarious plot that threatens the security of the entire nation. Sarah Nealis plays the triple roles of Annabella Schmidt, Margaret and Pamela. Pamela, in particular, is the female lead who acts as the dainty female to Hannay’s debonair masculinity.
Rounding out the cast are the two clowns Rob Johansen and Joe Foust, who play numerous roles including show-stealing turns as a Scottish wife and an elderly, senile man, respectively.
The production is a rollercoaster of laughs, with valleys where things get significantly less interesting and peaks, like a helicopter made of ladders or a gag involving a rear window that elicit side-splitting laughter.
Sandys is devilishly handsome with his roguish pencil mustache. He plays one role – the straight, serious main character – and has the difficult task of maintaining that in the midst of so much hilarious mayhem. Yet, he holds his own next to his more animated co-stars and keeps the viewer invested in his story.
Nelis navigates well through what sometime seems like a boys' club of a production and her chemistry with Sandys is passionate, though practically restrained.
Yet the two real athletes are Johansen and Foust, who transform effortlessly between roles, sometimes even playing multiple characters in one scene. Considering the play spans about two and a half hours and is performed multiple times a week, it’s amazing how no one has collapsed.
The play is metafictional: the characters acknowledge the theatricality of the play's scenarios. Even the set, designed by Linda Buchaman, is its own gold-trimmed stage with performance boxes. It keeps the audience firmly separated, making it clear that this is a play and not some serious likeness of real life.
Other than the stage set, the production is sparse, with ladders, chairs and luggage boxes making up trains, cars and – in one gravity-defying sequence – a helicopter. Yet the sparseness adds to the charm of the production, giving a slapstick element while still being sharply blocked and timed.
It’s also filled to the brim with Hitchcock references, some fitting in perfectly and others delightfully making no sense at all. But do not worry about not getting all of the references – the audience’s knowing laughter will be a good indicator.
"The 39 Steps" is not a perfect production: there was some line slurring and props gone awry, but that’s the caveat with putting on such a fast-paced production. It’ll always be slightly frayed at the ends and yet, there’s a feeling that's intentional.
Any theater lover will appreciate the seams showing and the ability to get some insight into the mechanics of stage magic.
If "The 39 Steps" succeeds in making the viewer laugh, while still focusing their attention on character and story, then that’s a success.
What: The 39 Steps
When: Through Nov. 7
Where: Archbold Theatre
820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, N.Y. 13210
Tickets: Student: $15