of psycho walks: Richard Hannay flees into the Scottish
Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
by Patrick Barlow from an original concept by Simon Corble
and Nobby Dimon, based on the film by Alfred Hitchcock (which
in turn was based on the book by John Buchan)
by Maria Aitken, Roundabout Theatre Company, Proctors Mainstage,
through Nov. 22
on the acclaimed 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name,
this two-time 2008 Tony Award-winning pastiche is pure comic
gold. And the plot is pure Hitchcockian: “one damned thing
play’s MacGuffin (Hitchcock’s term for a meaningless device
that advances the plot) turns out to be Hitchcock’s films
themselves. Fans will groaningly laugh or laughingly groan
at all the references to Psycho, The Birds, The Lady Vanishes,
The Man Who Knew Too Much, Rear Window, etc. Given enough
rope, the play might have been notorious for keeping audiences
spellbound through its Hitchcockian contortions, but I confess
that I am the wrong man to sabotage this lifeboat of young
and innocent fun.
all a pretense for a 95-minute comedic frenzy of four actors
playing 100 (give or take an accent or dropped hat) characters
on a stage filled with dry ice, fog, gunshots and train travel,
as the play whisks its way from the Scottish highlands to
London’s Palladium Theatre. Just as no one believes the film’s
protagonist Richard Hannay (Robert Donat in the black-and-white
film), nor the lovely blond lady handcuffed to his wrist,
no one would believe the merry mayhem the cast of Ted Deasy,
Scott Parkinson, Eric Hissom, and Claire Brownell (who I have
the suspicion has the talent and verve to act a one-woman
version of the play) creates without witnessing it live. The
39 Steps is dashing good fun for film aficionados and
fans of Monty Python’s manic glee.
a torn curtain upstage and four false prosceniums, and dressed
with some steamer trunks, an overstuffed leather chair and
a perpetually used portable doorway, The 39 Steps uses
every theatrical trick available. It opens with a strobe light
to set the scene: protagonist Hannay, a bored but dashingly
handsome Londoner resting in his easy chair. It’s not long
before he snaps himself out of his ennui by exclaiming to
the audience, “I need something mindless and trivial. Something
utterly pointless. I’ll go to the theater.”
thereafter he is at a theater watching “Mr. Memory” display
his knowledge, when a shot rings out, a femme fatale appears
in his arms, her corpse soon bottoms up across his lap, and,
in a flash, he’s off on a train to Scotland falsely accused
of her murder. He is hounded by police, salesmen, paperboys,
a Scottish farmer and his wife, a German master spy and his
wife and a Scottish innkeeper and his wife. A plucky
blond is handcuffed to his wrist the whole while, until the
climax finds Hannay back at the Palladium as Mr. Memory recites
“The 39 Steps.”
is a series of applause- earning Vaudevillian hat tricks,
quick costume changes, and measured bursts of repeated physical
action that would fit right in with Monty Python’s “Twit of
the Year” competition or the Ministry of Silly Walks. There
are staging highlights galore—a personal favorite was the
excellent use of a huge white cloth, to cast shadows on for
the romp across Scotland, atop the Loch Ness monster that
includes the silhouette for Hitchcock’s signature cameo—all
leading to a perfectly Hitchcockian comic ending. Without
a shadow of a doubt, Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
will get and keep you laughing, even if you know the ending.
Gray: Stories Left to Tell
Spaulding Gray, concept by Kathleen Russo
by Lucy Sexton, the Egg, Nov. 14
a man’s literary output is so entirely tied to his own performance
of those words, how can his work outlive him? Developed three
years ago, Spaulding Gray: Stories Left to Tell returns
Gray’s monologues to the stage, delivered by four actors.
The Egg was a regular venue for Gray, a place to which he
returned every couple of years. Now, nearly six years after
Gray took his own life, his words, character, and view of
the world returned to the venue’s Swyer Theatre.
a long-shuttered house, the stage was arranged with furniture
draped in sheets. When the actors came bounding out to the
sound of the Spice Girls (which figured in the first story),
they removed these wraps, stuffing them into a laundry basket.
This served to both reveal the set and underscore the domesticity
that characterized Gray’s last works, primarily Morning,
Noon and Night.
as a series of readings, the show (which has played in cities
across the country with a revolving set of performers) began
with each actor delivering short segments of Gray’s performance
monologues, along with new readings from journal entries.
No parade of excerpts, this was a carefully considered work
that showed the actors each representing an aspect of Gray
himself while still remaining clearly delineated individuals.
As with Todd Haynes’ film I’m Not There, director Lucy
Sexton and concept creator Kathleen Russo, Gray’s widow, wisely
chose to not have Spaulding portrayed by one person.
of the night’s actors, Josh Lefkowitz, sat on the bed at stage
left, an apt placement for him, as the tales he told were
full of sexual awakenings and the enthusiasms of a young adult.
Poet Bob Holman sat in a slightly shabby upholstered wingback
chair that gave him the bearing of an affable PBS documentary
host combined with a dash of Saturday Night Live’s
“Mr. Mike.” His readings brought out the lyrical bearing of
Gray’s prose as Holman punched successive words and left staccato
pauses between others. Carmelita Tropicana spoke from a kitchen
table, before she shifted to the front of the stage, conveying
an inherent energy as though it were impossible to stay seated.
right, Ain Gordon anchored the night, sitting at what Gray’s
dedicated following woud recognize as his performance table,
set with familiar objects (microphone, papers, boombox, water
glass). Reading from journal entries, beginning each with
the date, Gordon advanced the course of decades, from the
’50s through the end of the century, with the unshakable specter
of death drawing ever nearer.
into the performance, the cast was joined by a fifth member.
At each performance, this “special guest” spot is filled by
a local figure of note. Times Union editor Rex Smith
filled that part for Saturday’s show (James Howard Kunstler
did the honors the night before).
the journal moving into the new century, we know where Gray’s
life is heading, but it is no less affecting to hear it afresh.
By the time of Gray’s last entry, Gordon is alone on the stage,
in stark shadows as the lights continue to dim. Gray is slipping
away into the depths of the waters, a theme he returned to
throughout his career. With the sound of a wind chime, the
stage goes dark. But the end of Spaulding Gray, the man, was
not the end of his art. After a moment, the lights came back
up and the actors returned for a swirling two minutes of overlapping
dialogue. The show closed as a celebration, their dancing
giving way to a large rear projection of Gray himself on stage
in a performance, dancing across the stage with his boombox
in what can only be seen as delight.
mystery was where the audience was. Spaulding Gray would regularly
sell out when he came to Albany. With only about a hundred
in attendance each night, were all those fans apprehensive
about seeing his material without him? If so, I offer this
advice: Don’t make that mistake again.