Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps

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Photo Source: Craig Schwartz
The portly Brit referred to in the title—creator of such film classics as "Vertigo," "Psycho," and "Rear Window"—possibly wouldn't have liked what adapter Patrick Barlow and co-conceivers Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon have done to his 1935 spy flick "The 39 Steps." Hitch (1899–1980) methodically built suspense in his films through subtlety and sly innuendo, seldom reverting to overstatement. Barlow's play (also based on the original book by John Buchan, and an original concept by Corble and Dimon) has transformed the material into a no-holds-barred parody. It turns the British espionage genre on its ear, in the shameless spirit of Monty Python and Mel Brooks. It ain't Shakespeare, but this captivating Tony- and Olivier-winning piffle serves up unbridled off-the-wall hilarity, with a touch of Hitchcock homage to boot. It's peppered by an astonishingly versatile cast of four and a cornucopia of inspired visual gags.

The outrageous and fast-paced shenanigans are kept in perfect balance by director Maria Aitken, who maintains a crisp, improvisation-flavored style. Actors relying on quick-change artistry tackle many roles—gender-bending and otherwise. A bare-bones set design by Peter McKintosh provides the ideal setup for all sorts of gleefully silly sight gags cleverly played out with props and set pieces (such as window frames, ladders, and hats) and Kevin Adams' ingenious lighting effects.

The lead character is dashing deadpan hero Richard Hannay (splendidly played by Ted Deasy, the only actor taking a single role), who goes to the theater one night in search of adventure and gets much more than he expected. He meets a frantic femme fatale, Annabella (the sublime Claire Brownell). She's a spy who clues him in to danger surrounding them just before she's murdered. Hannay is then off to Scotland to unravel the mystery, soon discovering he is the suspect in Annabella's killing. He encounters loopy Scottish farmers, Nazis, policemen, and a woman out to get him (Brownell), who ends up falling for him. Playing umpteen roles are Eric Hissom and Scott Parkinson, whose mastery of various dialects is mind-boggling and who elicit enormous laughs with their breathless quick-change antics and their mastery of characters ranging from overbearing matrons to menacing double agents.

There are plenty of choice Hitchcock references along the way, such as the shower scene from "Psycho," though the highlight is a visually dazzling re-creation of the fabulous crop-duster chase scene from "North by Northwest." Having already conquered London, Broadway, Off-Broadway, and several cities internationally, the show finally arrives in L.A. in its national tour edition, a delectable treat for those with a taste for unapologetically stark-raving-nutty fare.

Presented by Center Theatre Group at the Ahmanson Theatre, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A. April 28-May 16. Tue.-Fri., 8 p.m.; Sat., 2 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 and 6:30 p.m. (Dark May 5-6.) (213) 972-4400.