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Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" – Ahmanson – Los Angeles Theater Review

 

THEATER IS THEATER AND CINEMA IS CINEMA AND NEVER THE TWAIN SHOULD MEET

 

Picture – Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" – Ahmanson – photo by Craig SchwartzTheater Review

by Harvey Perr 

published May 2, 2010 

 

Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps"

now playing in Los Angeles at the Ahmanson 

through May 16

 

If it insists on calling itself Alfred Hitchcock’s "The 39 Steps," then, damn it, I’d rather review Hitchcock’s masterpiece, because the opening of that film – hundreds of small electrical bulbs spelling out MUSIC HALL – is the closest the madly successful stage production comes to the film. What I mean to say is that this perfect example of cinematic art has been morphed into a tacky and cheesy extended quick-change music hall sketch, the kind that Richard Hannay might have seen if that shot hadn’t rung out and turned his humdrum life into a fabulous adventure. If Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca, in their heyday, had done it in ten succinct minutes, it might have been the artistic equivalent of the film. But here, what is called an “homage” to Hitchcock is, instead, a mockery. If the best the stage can do is to cannibalize old movies, what can one say about the kind of imagination that is at loose in the theater today?

 

picture - The 39 Steps movie posterHow can anyone who has seen the film, really seen it, forget those bulbs and that sign, the rowdy music hall audience and Mr. Memory, the haunted meeting with that strange foreign woman Annabella Schmidt, the delicious exchange with the milkman, the escape from London by train, the moment when Robert Donat’s Hannay first meets Madeleine Carroll, the lonely passion of the Scottish wife who helps Hannay and gives him her jealous husband’s coat with the hymnal in the breast pocket which saves his life, the moment when the FDR look-alike reveals his missing finger and thereby announces his villainy, the political meeting that was so brilliant that a variation on it was recreated for The Third Man, the escape among the sheep in that terrible Scottish fog, the warmly human and delightfully funny proprietress of the inn where Hannay and the Madeleine Carroll character, with whom he has been magically reunited and to whom he is handcuffed, fall in love, and where, taking off her wet stockings while hungrily eating a sandwich, she breathes an erotic tension into the scene so that it's both sexy and funny, or that final image of Mr. Memory dying while decoding the meaning of the 39 steps, a row of chorus girls dancing in the background, entertaining the music hall audience?

 

Picture – Alfred Hitchcock's "The 39 Steps" – Ahmanson – photo by Craig SchwartzAnd what has Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, with the aid of Patrick Barlow’s adaptation and Maria Aitken’s manic direction, come up with in their transference from film to stage? They’ve kept most of the screenplay but, where there was once wit and humanity, a tingling frisson of suspense, and visual imagery that managed to be both dark and glistening, we now have before us a vulgar and witless piece of shtick in which every line is stretched out and hammered home in an effort to make sure we get every joke, and, thrown into the dialogue, references to other Hitchcock movie titles, which makes the audience laugh uproariously for reasons which totally escaped this reviewer, and they’ve even given us that famous profile image of Hitchcock for yet another loud comic response.

 

Even in its Broadway productions, this show always seemed as if it would be more at home in a smaller venue, but while its stagecraft and the chucklesome efforts of its four game actors are not entirely lost on the cavernous stage of the Ahmanson, it does give the impression that Hitchcock’s film was entirely composed of long shots. The only true miracle of this production is Kevin Adams’s vividly imaginative lighting. But Alfred Hitchcock’s "The 39 Steps" is Hitchcock for people who don’t really know that Hitchcock was a subtle and canny observer of the human condition and not merely a showman. In reducing him to a purveyor of penny-dreadful slapstick, at least one person in the audience left seriously unamused. 

 

harveyperr @ stageandcinema.com

 

photos by Craig Schwartz

 

 
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