The 39 Steps, original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, adaptation by Patrick Barlow; produced by the American Heartland Theatre: seen May 6, 2011
The American Heartland’s production of The 39 Steps is a chuckle-worthy outing that has all the elements to be an excellent show that just misses the mark. The plot is from Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name, but intended to be presented with the sense of the crazy attempt to do it with only four actors and ‘limited’ budget.
From the opening flicker of the strobe light to give the sense you’re watching a movie to the death scenes that are similar to Paul Reubens’ death in the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie (that takes what seems to be five minutes to happen) to the accents that are just fake enough to be fun, the play has a lot of good chuckles and bad puns (the ‘Bob’s your uncle’ the only one that really got a groan out of me). However, the humor is just that – chuckles. There was only one time I had a real laugh, when the two ‘extras’ came on as police officers with their ‘dogs’ (mops shaped perfectly).
All four of the actors did well, but special kudos go to Jerry Jay Cranford (Man 1) and Doogin Brown (Man 2) as they switched from character to character flawlessly, even in the scenes where they were playing multiple characters at the same time. And I have to say that Brown cross-dresses almost worthy of Ron Megee (Cranford, when cross-dressing, comes across as something out of an old Benny Hill sketch, which has it’s own charms).
However, the fake ‘mistakes’ the production has don’t quite play (especially in Act 2 when the fog that’s supposed to – according to the dialogue – surround the actors doesn’t quite happen right away). I don’t know how much of it is because I’ve been involved in shows (and involved in shows that have had fake mistakes as well), but when Cranford coming in with some food for our hero and heroine to eat accidentally dropped the glass of ‘milk’, showing there was no liquid in it, then covered it up with “and some really old milk”, it was the first time I actually laughed at the mistake.
The production ends up playing it too safe. It needs that community theatre fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants franticness, where the reason there is only four cast members and limited sets is because the show was put together yesterday with the money the cast had in their wallets. I know they show has been in previews, and it felt like it. It needs a little bit of recklessness to it, that feeling where the cast and crew had helped building set and putting final touches until 3 am the night before, and the cast is running on a combination of coffee and Jolt soda. In the end, it shows that they had plenty of time and – if not plenty of budget, at least enough to where they could’ve done it with a ‘proper’ set, which – of course – is the opposite of the intention of the show.
To quote a line from the show itself, “it wasn’t a great show, but it wasn’t that bad”.
The 39 Steps is playing at the American Heartland Theatre until June 19, and more information can be found at www.ahtkc.com.
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