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Otherwise outstanding actors turn a bit tedious with 'The 39 Steps,' CityRep's flimsy comedic translation of John Buchan's spy thriller

None April 29th, 2010

The 39 Steps
8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Saturday,
2 p.m. Sunday
Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre
Civic Center Music Hall
201 N. Walker

In the dedication of his 1915 novel "The Thirty-Nine Steps," John Buchan writes of his "affection for that elementary type of tale which Americans call the 'dime novel' and which we know as the 'shocker' "” the romance where the incidents defy the probabilities, and march just inside the borders of the possible."

The incidents surely defy probabilities and stagger along the borders of the possible, but probabilities and possibilities of plot do not matter one whit in Patrick Barlow's stage adaptation, which bears a startling faithfulness to Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film version, including the numeric title, "The 39 Steps." The story line is merely a scaffold on which Barlow has steadied a creative translation of the story from screen to stage.

What this means is that Oklahoma City Repertory Theatre's production has much to admire, but little to adore, resulting in a tedious evening of theater. The Brechtian staging by director Shawn Churchman includes numerous sight gags: actors showing the bobbing-and-weaving motion of a train; clothes flapping in the wind; biplanes created from four-rung ladders; and a single door becoming a multiroom mansion, among other pieces of stage business.

The conceit is that four actors portray many characters. Or make that two actors play many characters, while one actor plays three, and another plays protagonist Richard Hannay.
You may be surprised to see any production with the outstanding actors Jonathan Beck Reed (Hannay) and Matthew Alvin Brown (numerous roles) described as tedious. Along with Reed and Brown, the fine Steve Emerson (other numerous roles) and the terrific Lexi Windsor, who plays the three female roles with aplomb that equals the three men combined, give excellent performances, which are impressive to behold.

It is fun to see Emerson play three characters in one scene with a quick change of an English custodian helmet, railroad conductor's cap and bowler. It's just that in "The 39 Steps," the cast does not have great material with which to work.

The plot involves Hannay stumbling upon a spy ring that is about to take some important secret about England's air defense out of the country. Part of the problem may be that the play is ostensibly a comedy, but is based on a novel and film that are spy thrillers.

The production values in CityRep's staging are high, especially Lou Bird's spot-on, tweedy costumes. The versatile scenic design is by Donald Jordan and James Wolk.

Barlow sprinkles the script with references to Hitchcock films "” at least eight, by my count, including a murder of stuffed crows, which must be a nod to "The Birds." "”Larry Laneer
  • Currently 3.5/5 Stars.
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