German spies, Scottish policemen, femme fatales and four actors playing 150 characters are currently running amok at downtown's Beverly O'Neill Theater. International City Theatre (ICT) is presenting the award-winning satiric mystery "The 39 Steps" through July 8.
This is the 2007 adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie, which was in turn adapted from an earlier novel and stage play. The plot involves a naive man, Richard Hannay, who unwittingly becomes enmeshed in international espionage after a woman is murdered in his apartment. On the run from police, Hannay must prove his innocence while also trying to stop the transfer of atomic secrets.
Whereas Hitchcock added some comedic elements to this otherwise serious story in his classic film, most recent adaptor Patrick Barlow has made "The 39 Steps" a full-out farce. Barlow incorporates many ingenious bits of staging that, in the hands of director Jamie Torcellini and a delectable cast, find hilarious expression in ICT's production.
These include a chase across the top of a moving train, a harrowing escape across the Scottish moors (which bear a suspicious resemblance to a certain, revered filmmaker), seemingly endless hallways leading to a wild party at the manor of an eminent scientist, and a climactic scene in a British theater complete with opera boxes. While the sets throughout are fairly minimal, designers Fred Kinney and JR Norman Luker provide a vast array of evocative, versatile scenic elements. Stacy McKenney Norr's lighting design further heightens these as well as numerous optical illusions utilized.
The more familiar one is with Hitchcock's cinematic oeuvre, the more one will enjoy "The 39 Steps." There are frequent nods to "The Birds," "North by Northwest," The Man Who Knew Too Much" and, of course, "Psycho." Although the play's second act isn't quite as lively as act one, such references help maintain the audience's attention. Kim DeShazo's costumes and the abundant props provided by Patty and Gordon Briles also prove essential.
Sound designer Dave Mickey contributes significantly to this production's overall success. Memorable music and sound effects from Hitchcock's movies are well integrated, despite a few mis-timed cues on opening night. But the key players in this delightful "39 Steps" are, indeed, its players. As the heroic Hannay, handsome Eric Wentz displays abundant energy and physical dexterity. Ashley Morton is terrific in the major female roles and proves herself adept at various European accents.
Also playing occasional female characters as well as all of the play's additional male characters are Louis A. Lotorto and Bo Foxworth. This exhaustingly impressive duo often assume multiple roles in the same scene, sometimes with little more than different hats to distinguish between them. Watching the two of them at work more than justifies the (still reasonable) ticket price.
Barlow's dazzling adaptation of "The 39 Steps" won a special Drama Desk Award in 2008 for "Unique Theatrical Experience." ICT's incarnation is no less unique and enjoyable. For tickets, visit internationalcitytheatre.org or call (562) 436-4610.