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THEATER REVIEW: Ghent takes ’39 Steps’ in (very funny) bits and pieces


The 39 Steps / Ghent Playhouse

BEN BRANTLEY, WHEN REVIEWING the play The 39 Steps in 2008, said it nicely: This ’39 Steps’ isn’t using its source material as a satiric target but as an accomplice.

The source material is Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller-film, and the accomplicing may have been between some particularly stingy producers and an ingenious playwright with his inventive director and actors. (And maybe not.) Still, for the comic version, the original movie, with its contrasting settings and expensive cast, has been shrunk here to four actors and a lot of trunks and chairs.

That concept is fun. The other adorable premise is the referencing of many Hitchcock films and the reworking of the original plot of The 39 Steps in the manner of Red Skelton (does anyone remember Red Skelton?), Charlie Chaplin, and Charles Ludlam.

The thirty-three scenes are sweetly, tartly short and treated like sketches rather than scenes.

Delivering this play takes more than the usual talent, labor and meticulous timing. Director Deena Pewtherer and her cast are fast, keen and delightfully absurd.

In regional productions choreography is often borrowed from the original production. (What would the Cossacks’ dance in Fiddler be without Jerome Robbins’ brilliant knee sequence?) All productions of The 39 Steps need to be choreographed, and one can never be sure how much of the staging is borrowed and how much is original to the creative work of the current director.

Whatever it is, created or re-created, in the production at Ghent Playhouse, it works. Both the physical comedy and the satire whisper and roar. Pewtherer and her two clowns (Kevin Kilb and Brian Wagner) plus a clownish leading lady (Meaghan Rogers) know how to execute.

So does the straight man for all the intelligent nonsense, Richard Hannay.

Hannay is played by Christopher Gilbert with a casually appropriate, I’m-not-trying-very-hard realism. Gilbert has a long monologue as a man dragged into giving a political speech, even though he couldn’t tell you his own name or what he is running for. The political generalizations and clichés roll out of him in all-too-familiar tropes. Like most political speeches, it is too long. Blame the author, not the actor.

Leading lady Rogers, who always looks gorgeous in Joanne Maurer’s costumes, is especially winsome when lusting (without consummation) after leading man Gilbert or dying on his lap.

Kilb (Clown) is convincing and hilarious in multiple roles ranging from a theatrical memory expert to a morally challenged matron with unexpected dancing skills. Wagner (Clown) is equally skilled and funny. The curved theater box (by set designer Sam Reilly) is so nice that it belies my stingy producer theory about the original play. I wish the box could have been used more. This show is a sequence of bits.

One of my favorites involves the use of an empty wooden rectangle that is successfully looked through, posed behind, and climbed out of.

Hooray, hooray; here it comes again!

See The 39 Steps through October 23. For tickets call 518-794-8989.

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