THE 39 STEPS – Carefully Crafted Chaos at Lake Charles Little Theater

SHORT TAKE: Do NOT MISS the opportunity to see THE 39 STEPS at Lake Charles Little Theater – November 10, 11, 12, 17, 18, 19 2017 – a hilarious send up of the famous Hitchcock spy thriller of the same name.

LONG TAKE: As I have oft told our kids – it’s not necessarily WHAT you say but how you say it that makes all the difference. This is brilliantly demonstrated in the current offering by Lake Charles Little Theater, THE 39 STEPS.

 Set in 1935 England, The 39 Steps, in its original incarnation as a spy thriller, is about Richard Hanney, an every man suffering from a severe case of ennui, who attends a theatrical performance of a man with a prodigious memory.  While there he is entreated by a mysterious foreign woman for help. The woman is murdered in his apartment, and Hanney becomes the prime suspect, thus kick starting the misadventures of Richard Hanney "accidental hero".

Beginning life as a novel by John Buchan along the lines of Ian Fleming’s Bond series, The 39 Steps was made into a movie several times, the most famous of which is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 entry. However, in 2005 Patrick Barlow got the bright idea of turning it into a comic play.

The Hitchcock movie, while employing Hitchcock’s trademark bit of tongue in cheek, is a drama. The author of the play,  Patrick Barlow, included the original material, most of the dialogue, and all of the plot convolutions but has presented them as would an ambitious Alfred Hitchcock fan might with a minimalist amount of props and an extremely limited pool of actors.

Four actors portray all of the many characters. This is just one of the aspects of the play that turns an intriguing drama into an irresistible comedy.

In the brilliantly funny rendition at Lake Charles Little Theater, Clay Hebert and his toupee play the lead Richard Hanney. Whether narrating to the audience, reluctantly falling in love with his female protagonist, or performing slapstick maneuvers required of his character, Clay’s Hanney is the anchor that keeps the production steady as insanity reigns around him. Clay provides just the right amount of tongue in cheek, committed to his "serious" role in one moment then feigning exasperation at having to deal with the limitations of the set and ensemble the next.

  Alexandra Landry shows her talents in triplicate to all three of the romantic female roles who cross Hanney’s path. She is great as Hanney’s side kicks – in turns the doomed German femme fatale, the reluctant English female romantic lead, and an unhappy Scottish housewife, lending accents and different body language to each.

The remaining dozens of other roles, including policemen, henchmen, evil doers, a milkman, fellow train travelers, a conductor, tavern owner, various passersby and  minor female roles – oft without even changing clothes entirely from their previous character – are all juggled by the two "Clowns," Joseph Comeaux and Greg Stratton, the latter who also wears the hat of the play’s director.     Stratton and Comeaux do a magnificent job of filling in all the many and varied roles, bouncing from one supporting character to another, sometimes required to change clothes on stage due the exigencies of the story.

 Comeaux and Stratton occasionally even have a different hat in each hand with which to do moment by moment changes right in front of us, deliberately stressing our suspension of disbelief in a humorous bald-faced dare to the audience to not be convinced. And every once in a while Hanney has to "correct" the two "Clowns" as their overburdened schedule leads to "miscues" and "mistakes". Of course these "mistakes" are all part of a complex and intricately timed and blocked play which is demanding for any cast, even one as experienced as the one here. But like a troupe of skillful magicians, they make it look easy.  

There is no fourth wall. Hanney starts by addressing his audience and conveying his woes. Further, without giving anything away, I advise you to watch carefully as much goes on during and around the main action – small moments you won’t want to miss. Then there are the minimalist props, which are reused in a variety of ways  Steamer trunks serve as tables, beds, train seats and even in one especially memorable scene the ROOF of a train. Silhouettes and photos on a screen enhance the idea of large elaborate rooms and open air scenes…without actually HAVING large elaborate rooms … or use of the open countryside. How the cast deals with the prop aided pantomime is another comedic element of the play.

Although based on one of Hitchcock’s earlier movies, the comedy was written in 2005 and so features blatant references and affectionate homages to a half dozen other Hitchcock movies written after The 39 Steps.

And, of course, all this chaos is deliberately written into the play. I once read that it takes a lot of thought to appear glib. I’ve also noted it takes an erudite, thoughtful and intelligently gifted actor to appear a fool – note Jerry Lewis, Moe Howard and Charlie Chaplin were all highly dedicated and methodical men who planned out every lunatic action for maximum effect based upon years of experience and practice. Similarly it takes a tremendous amount of timing, organization and rehearsal to appear this daft and haphazard. But Stratton and company pull it off beautifully. And the result is a delightfully smart and funny play.

So call 337-433-7988 or log onto www.thelclt.com and order tickets for The 39 Steps. Appropriate for all ages. You won’t want to miss the opportunity to see it, maybe more than once at Lake Charles Little Theater, 813 Enterprise Blvd. November 10, 11, 17, and 18 at 7:30 pm November 12, and 19 for 2 pm matinees.

As a side note, I had puzzled over the title, The 39 Steps, for years. What relation does the word "steps" have to do with a spy organization? I finally got a tip from an article I read recently by Vanessa Thorpe of The Guardian. Apparently, while recuperating from an ulcer, Buchan would walk down from a garden to the beach using a walkway which had…you guessed it…39 steps. In the book, movies and the play the 39 Steps refers to a spy ring which seeks to steal away a "secret" vital to England’s national security (it really doesn’t matter what is, but is merely the "McGuffin"). Explained in the book, but not either the play or the famous movie, the 39 steps are the number of steps in a walkway which leads to the quay which holds the spy ring’s escape ship ….just so’s you know.

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One thought on “THE 39 STEPS – Carefully Crafted Chaos at Lake Charles Little Theater”

  1. Always love reading Movie Mom's reviews. I'm slightly puzzled with this how they manage to turn The 39 Steps into a comedy…maybe I skimmed the review too quickly. But both the John Buchan book and the movie from it were tense dramas based on a growing fear in Britain in the early 30's of German intentions.

    But I'd take issue with MM's rationalising of the title. My understanding is that the actual 39 steps are the number – in real life – the steps up to the clock face of Big Ben, the famous clock tower at Britain's Houses of Parliament. My recollection is that the movie's climax is at the clock face. And of course the protagonists have to climb the thirty-nine steps to get there.

    I'll bet her a cool nickel – no, I feel lucky – a chilled DIME that my version is correct. Last word: that's amazingly versatile of a small theater company to do such a play with few props. As for the 39 steps..I'm wondering how they managed THAT. But bravo to the players, wish I wasn't 3,500 miles away because I'd be standing in line for a ticket.

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