By NOAH BURD
For 21st Century Media
How would cinema be different if Alfred Hitchcock had cut his teeth as a writer for “Saturday Night Live”? Of course we’ll never know, but playwright Patrick Barlow’s “The 39 Steps” may offer the next best thing to an answer — a hilarious parody of Hitchcock’s 1935 classic film of the same name. Theatre Horizon’s clever production of this popular West End comedy is a loving send up of the English director that is sure to have audiences cracking up.
The play’s plot is nearly identical to that of the film. Richard Hannay (Damon Bonetti) leads a carefree life until an encounter with one Annabella Schmidt (Geneviève Perrier) threatens his world. Schmidt, a spy, reveals to Hannay that she has uncovered a plot to sneak military secrets outside the country. But when a murder takes place in Hannay’s flat, he is forced to flee, pursued by police officers and assassins alike. He dons disguises, jumps out of a train, and dodges gunfire in order to prove his innocence and foil the schemers pursuing him.
The great joy of Theatre Horizon’s production comes from seeing how a big cinematic crime thriller is shrunk down and squeezed into a theatre. With truly ingenious staging to guide them, the cast of four is able to turn the minimalistic set into the expressive world of a Hitchcock film, albeit with a parodist’s sense of frugality. When Hannay must escape through the window, he simply takes an unattached window frame held by another character, steps into it like a Hula-Hoop, and shimmies through it. In other moments, shadow puppets and exaggerated accents provide the comic cues. Director Matt Pfeiffer strings a variety of such bits together so seamlessly that the jokes build off of each other without ever feeling repetitive.
The cast completely commits to the sheer zaniness of the script. Damon Bonetti as Hannay anchors the show, speaking with a swaggering charisma that seems right out of a 1930s film. Geneviève Perrier plays well opposite Bonetti, whether she’s playing the straight role or the absurd over-the-top Schmidt. Steve Pacek and Adam Altman, meanwhile, run around the stage like madmen, changing characters, accents, and hats from second to second. Their energy and sheer physical endurance make them the rare character actors whose shticks are as impressive as they are funny.
“The 39 Steps” is outrageously fun. Its broad appeal doesn’t mean that its gags have been dumbed down. One need not be familiar with Hitchcock’s film to laugh all the way through from the beginning to the end, though fans of the director will certainly have fun catching all the references sprinkled throughout the show. Theatre Horizon’s creativity in bringing the screen to the stage makes “The 39 Steps” into something even more fun to watch than most parodies. It’s the kind of comedy that only works live in the theater — one that, ironically, cannot be captured on film.
IF YOU GO
WHAT; “The 39 Steps”
WHERE: Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb Street, Norristown.
WHEN: Through June 8.
TICKETS: $31 to 35 (adults), $29 to 33 (seniors), and
$25 (students with ID).
INFO.: Check www.theatrehorizon.org.