Friday, April 17, 2015

The 39 Steps at Lakewood Playhouse

Thank you, Mr. Bones
by Michael Dresdner

    Bryan Bender, Deya Ozburn                                               All photos by Kate Paterno-Lick 

You can accurately describe The 39 Steps, currently at Lakewood Playhouse, in just two words: madcap romp. I’ve reviewed iterations of it over the years in three different theaters and this one, directed by John Munn, is by far the best.

Steps is loosely based on Hitchcock’s famous 1935 “chase” thriller of the same name, but is given the extreme comic treatment a la Shakespeare Abridged. In other words, the plot – a man is roped into being both fox and hounds while trying to prevent a secret formula from getting out of the country – is almost completely irrelevant. It is nothing more than a platform on which to haul out and deliver every comic tableau you can imagine.

   L to R: Deya Ozburn, Bryan Bender, Frank Roberts, Paul Richter 

Along the way there are homages to Hitchcock in words, music, and images that are far too numerous to mention. You’ll probably pick up on Vertigo, Psycho, Strangers on a Train, Rear Window (as a curiously portable prop) and North by Northwest (as a shadow puppet show,) but that barely scratches the surface. Chances are you won’t catch them all, which may be a damned good excuse to see this play more than once.

Though versions vary, this one had a decidedly vaudevillian flavor, and Munn has resurrected almost every piece of comic shtick that’s ever graced the old time stage. Thus, it requires a flawless comic cast supported by innumerable (and excellent) costumes (Diane Runkel), clever props and set pieces (Virginia Yanoff and Lex Gernon), lighting (Kristin Zetterstrom) and sound tricks (Nena Curley.) Even the booth gets into the act with gags like intentional sound cue screw-ups, so here’s a tip of the hat to stage manager Jenifer King.

    L to R: Frank Roberts, Paul Richter 

Mostly, though, a property like this requires an ideal cast, and this one has it in spades. The leading man, and the only actor who plays only one role, must first be as charming a heartthrob as Mad Men’s Jon Hamm, and Bryan Bender, who plays hero Richard Hannay, is just that. From the moment he steps out on stage and flashes a winning grin you can almost see that cartoon trick of a flashing glint of light off his teeth. That’s not all, though. He also brings flawless timing,the athleticism for very physical comedy, and a finely tuned annoyance when things (intentionally) go wrong on stage. Thus his perfectly nuanced glances at the booth when phones keep ringing after being picked up or lights that refuse to turn off and on, and his impatience when he tires of the slow-motion staging of an elaborate fight scene well before his fellow actors. In short, he’s the perfect Hannay.

His three primary female counterparts are played by Deya Ozburn, who morphs from exaggerated Germanic vamp Annabella Schmidt, through sweet but back-stabbing Pamela, to unsophisticated but helpful Margaret. As with all the roles, there are tons of physical demands along with the comedic ones, and Ozburn can keep up with the rest of this talented cast just fine, thank you very much.

L to R: Bryan Bender, Frank Roberts, Deya Ozburn 

Anchoring all the other 100-odd parts are the two rubber-faced, loose-jointed clowns, who switch personas, voices, costumes, and even genders faster than a nymphomaniac can drop her dress. Frank Roberts and Paul Richter do the honors here, and they are superb, creating wildly different and hilariously bizarre characters in the blink of an eye, flashing both tirelessly and seamlessly from one to another. These four make up the entire cast, and believe me, they make this show.

It’s spring, the sun is out today, and this is the perfect accompaniment to the mood. The 39 Steps is as pure a night of goofy, easy-to-swallow fun as one can divine. As the song says, pack up all your cares and woes and let these four delightful comics treat you to a couple of hours of mindless, non-stop hilarity.

The 39 Steps
April 17 through May 10, 2015
Lakewood Playhouse

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