Theater review: Comedic steps and missteps in '39'

Published: Thursday, Jan. 10 2013 7:01 p.m. MST

With a dagger to her back, the mysterious femme fatale, Annabella Schmidt (Emily Bell) dies in the lap of theatergoer Richard Hannay (Mitch Hall) in the Hale Centre Theatre's "The 39 Steps."

DC Snaps

“The 39 Steps,” Hale Centre Theatre, Mondays through Saturdays until Feb. 2 at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on Saturdays at 12:30 and 4 p.m., $26-$16, 801-984-9000 or halecentretheatre.org

WEST VALLEY CITY — When the stage manager holds up signs — reading “Laughter!” or “Applause!” — the audience really doesn’t need the prompts.

At the Hale Centre Theatre, “The 39 Steps” is a grand piece of theatrical merriment.

Spoofing a page-turner spy novel and Alfred Hitchcock’s film adaptation, the play enjoyed Tony Awards, successful Broadway and West End runs, and more than one national tour. The local version is full of the same silly stunts and overplayed gestures that result in glorious absurdity.

The 1935 film, which began the Master of Suspense’s mold of innocent men embroiled in foul play and on the run, is a ripe target for parody. The central character of Richard Hannay in this early Hitchcock British film is a debonair London bachelor who is bored one evening and goes out to the theater alone. There he meets Annabella Schmidt, a mysterious femme fatale, who dies in his lap but not before uttering the only clue to the evening’s mystery: “Alt na shellach.”

The gent must then dash from London across the Scottish highlands and back again, all the while attempting to save his homeland from an enemy spy ring. There are high-speed chases across moors, rivers, an elevated bridge and out the window of a moving train, but the bare-bones set only includes a few tables, four or five chairs, sets of highly important trunks, door frames to go through and window frames to slide through.

And the cast of hundreds is portrayed by only three actors: Mitch Hall as the man-on-the-run Hannay and two protean actors billed as Clown 1 and Clown 2, who switch dialects, costumes and mannerisms with aplomb, often several times in the same scene. Director Chris Clark had the good fortune to cast two of the state’s best comic actors, Carter Thompson and Jake Ben Suazo. The success of the evening largely depends on their comedic abilities, and the crackerjack combo leaves audience members in stitches.

Beginning and ending the evening as a music hall presenter and his human encyclopedia act, Mr. Memory, Thompson and Suazo take on the show’s many quick-change roles with dizzyingly rapid succession, and their sense of fun is infectious.

The sole female cast member is Emily Bell, who takes on fewer roles than the Clowns, unless you include the marching band she also plays.

“The 39 Steps,” with a script by British comic Patrick Barlow, began its successful run in pubs and small theaters in England as a two-actor play, only later adding the two additional onstage performers. In this staging, two characters are added: Eric Phillips as a foley artist and Greg Larsen as the stage manager, who add bits of humor here and there.

Jennifer Stapley-Taylor designed the theater-in-a-theater set, and the play is purportedly set the pre-war era of the mid-1930s, although you wouldn’t really know it from the costume designs that show no period flourish.

“The 39 Steps” is an homage to theater, which has survived on the greasepaint of hammy actors and traditional, elementary stage effects.

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