I went to England with my parents for two weeks, in 1996 if I remember right. At that time, was running at The Criterion Theatre, which must have been where we saw it. It was a madcap comic masterpiece, with plenty of physical comedy but also a dash of very sophisticated humor. I also remember seeing Noises Off and The Black Comedy, which merited the same description.
I loved them all, and I viewed them as some sort of isolated incredible British phenomenon … which is why I was delighted to discover the same ethos last week in the off-broadway* production of The 39 Steps.
The play is nominally an adaptation of a famous, and famously dark, thriller from the 1930s by Alfred Hitchcock. It benefits from being both iconic and yet not so well-known that the audience cannot be surprised. The movie is not, however, a comedy by any stretch.
This production, much like The Compleat Works, turns the original absolutely on its head. A cast of four actors plays over 30 different characters. There are often more than four characters in one scene, with amazing feats of choreography that border on acrobatics, and then “accidentally” fail at the last minute, “forcing” other actors to break character in order to get the show back on track. Props and cues are always unreasonably convenient or “accidentally” missing. The total effect is a perfect blend of genre parody, slapstick hijinks, voice play of every kind, and meta-level humor about all the ways a stage production can go horribly, perfectly wrong.
I loved it. Also, tickets are really cheap.
* The theater is at Union Square, which is actually on Broadway, but you know what I mean.