March 27th, 2008


39 Steps

I've been wanting to see The 39 Steps for yonks. It's a play that reproduces, scene for scene, the Hitchcock reimagination of John Buchan's 1912 ur-thriller The Thirty-Nine Steps. I am a big fan (for very different reasons) of both book and movie, and when the play came to New York, I was very excited. I couldn't imagine how they were going to pull it off, but I was looking forward to watching them try.

We laughed so hard I almost fell out of my seat. Four actors (three men and a woman) playing dozens of parts (except the guy playing Richard Hannay, who was monolithically himself--and constantly on-stage--throughout). An entirely bare stage--bare to the brick back wall, that is. The furniture was on wheels, the doors ditto, the windows picture frames held up by whoever was looking through them, the Scotch moors entirely in the imagination of the beholder. There was shadow-play (a tiny Hannay-on-a-stick rode across a suggested body of water on the back of the Loch Ness Monster. The baddie chasing him got gored by a shadow deer) and little biplanes on ropes. The train was four trunks; the car was four chairs, a lectern and a steering wheel. Everything else was done with physical comedy, and very well done indeed.

I was particularly impressed by the actress, whose Broadway debut this was after a career spent entirely in TV acting. Many TV and movie actors just can't cope with theatre, seem artificial or bland or stiff. She just took the bit between her teeth, projecting three different accents and three very different characters to the balcony and beyond. Yes, she was overacting, but it was comedy, and she was wonderful. Everybody was wonderful. I loved it unreservedly.

Then I came home and took the book down and started to read it. Oh, the difference. Hitchcock played wiley beguiled with the plot, taking from it, essentially, the name Richard Hannay, the idea of a German plot to start a war, a murder, and a chase through Scotland and nothing else. Frankly, it was a good decision.

I do love John Buchan--or I did when I was young and even more enthusiastic than I am now--but I cannot deny that he had some pretty odd notions. He was horribly anti-Semitic, he was politically simple-minded, he was sentimental. He had no more notion of plotting a thriller than I do, and that's saying something. His idea of a cool plot twist is finding yet another bluff, open-faced, kind-eyed Englishman to help his hero out of the bog he's gotten himself in. Everything happens to Hannay by happenstance: the good, the bad, the indifferent. He wanders all over the Highland, just happening to run into the arch-villain, an old friend from London days, just the man who can get the police off his back. And there's not a single woman in it, not even of any kind. In short, in the cold light of the 21st Century, The Thirty-Nine Steps is not a good book.

The 39 Steps, on the other hand, is delightful. Not deep, not meaningful, but delightfully, unapologetically, intelligently silly. Which, in my book, is a Good Thing.