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Ministry of psycho walks: Richard Hannay flees into the Scottish fog.

Spellbound

By James Yeara

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps

Adapted 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)

Directed by Maria Aitken, Roundabout Theatre Company, Proctors Mainstage, through Nov. 22

Based 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 after another.”

This 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.

It’s 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.

Set before 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.”

Shortly 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.”

In between 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.


More Than Words

Spaulding Gray: Stories Left to Tell

Text by Spaulding Gray, concept by Kathleen Russo

Directed by Lucy Sexton, the Egg, Nov. 14

When 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.

Like 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.

Presented 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.

The youngest 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.

At stage 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.

Midway 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).

With 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.

The only 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.

—David Greenberger

 


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