Wild Rides

“39 Steps,” “2.5 Minute Ride” make virtues of simplicity & theatricality.

BY CHRISTOPHER BYRNE | As pure, bubbly entertainment, the classic Hitchcock thriller “The 39 Steps” has been whipped into a perfect froth in a new stage production. Thanks to theatrical ingenuity, clever design, compelling staging, a knock-out cast, and relative brevity, this London import now at Roundabout knows how to tickle an audience and when to pack it up and go home.

Four actors take on the entire cast of characters. Charles Edwards plays the somewhat dashing, yet bored quasi-aristocrat Richard Hannay at the center of all the action. Jennifer Ferrin takes on the three main female roles, and the rest of the roles (male and female) are handled with vaudevillian or Monty Python-esque facility by Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, who play a broad range of roles with an equally broad range of accents.

THE 39 STEPS

Roundabout at the American Airlines Theater

227 W. 42nd St.

Tue.-Sat. at 8 p.m.; Wed., Sat., Sun. at 2 p.m.

$51.25-$96.25; 212-719-1300

2.5 MINUTE RIDE

Altered Stages

212 W. 29th St,, 2nd fl.

Mon. at 7 p.m.; Wed.-Sat. at 8 p.m.

$18; 212-868-4444

The play begins with Hannay, bored and restless as England lurches toward war, wondering what's next in his tedious life. To alleviate his boredom, he goes to the theater where he meets Annabella Schmidt, who insists that he take her home. (Not for that. For her safety from the unseen foes chasing her.) Schmidt is promptly murdered, and Hannay is blamed. So, he does what anyone would do – set off on a multi-country quest to find the real murderers. (We have every reason to believe Hannay is innocent as he was on stage when the unseen assassins offed Schmidt.)

As if that weren't enough to relieve his boredom, Hannay also takes on the task of uncovering the secret of the titular steps and in the end saves England from decimation at the hands of its enemies. Given the serious, if not downright overblown, jingoism of the original film, this piece would seem to be ripe for satire in our more entertainment-savvy, and politically cynical times, but the company plays the story more or less straight, relying on the breakneck pace and the conceit of the fast changes between characters to supply the comedy.

So, rather than poking fun at the dire risk of imminent foreign threat, playwright Patrick Barlow has paid homage to the period and the use of stereotypical characters, while director Maria Aitken keeps us laughing at the cleverness and the theatricality. There are moments that are inspiring for their effectiveness, even as one marvels at their simplicity.

Edwards is quite good as Hannay. He has the requisite British aloofness and calm in the face of catastrophe and manages to be hilarious while deadly earnest. Ferrin is excellent as the leading women, but it's a relief that Schmidt gets killed virtually at the top of the show. I was ready to throttle her for the exaggerated, drag-queen-does-Dietrich accent. As the ensemble, Burton and Saunders virtually walk away with the piece, ably taking on each silly challenge and nailing them precisely.

Peter McKintosh did the remarkable sets and costumes. They manage to convey period and place with only the simplest of elements and a monochromatic palette. In fact, a good part of the fun is wondering what they'll think of next.

Though the show comes in at just about two hours with a generous intermission, it could use a bit of trimming. By the second act, we've seen most of the tricks and they do start to wear just a bit thin. It's a difficult balance, and for the most part this team gets it exactly right. If not quite 39, for sheer creativity alone, this production is many steps ahead of other light entertainment these days.

Lisa Kron's “2.5 Minute Ride” is getting a wonderful Off-Broadway revival at Altered Stages right now. It's a story of family, the Holocaust, and roller coasters, told by one woman as she describes her dysfunctional, but ultimately sympathetic and lovable, family.

Who is this woman? And why is she talking to us about this? They are obvious questions, but best left alone, as they're not really answered. Better to simply to revel in the heartfelt story of a daughter trying to come to terms with her family and herself.

Nicole Golden performs the solo show on a virtually bare stage with truly remarkable grace and warmth. She's an actress who knows how to command the stage and charm an audience; it's a treat just to be in her presence and listen to the story. Kron's lyrical writing takes us to the defunct concentration camps and the roller coasters of Sandusky, Ohio. The metaphor, though perhaps obvious, is never labored, and the ride has an inherent humanity, which, thanks to Golden, is deeply moving.

 

 

More from Around NYC