Lost Nation Theater's production of The 39 Steps is a loving exchange between audience and performers. The actors move a spindly 7-by-3-foot rectangle into place; the audience agrees it's a door. The main character clambers over a sawhorse and sways frantically as he steps on a trunk while another character follows; the audience accepts it as a classic chase on the cars of a moving train. The play takes our knowledge of film conventions and thriller storytelling to make us partners in constructing an imaginary world.
The tone is set as the main character paces on a bare stage that becomes his London bachelor flat by the simple expedient of a handsome red armchair that arrives from the wings, rolling into place on casters. With lovely self-assurance, actor Christopher Scheer expects this piece of furniture and sits down comfortably in his role as the main character, Richard Hannay.
We see the backstage workings: The hand that pushed the chair isn't hidden. We grasp the storytelling style: Hannay's brisk, perfectly accented monologue can only belong to a movie character about to get in over his head. And we know we are going to enjoy the witty ride — our seats might as well be on casters, too, for we'll quickly cover a great deal of ground.
Patrick Barlow's wildly funny script is an homage to the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film, based on a John Buchan novel. Barlow is more interested in approximating the film than the book, primarily because the play is ultimately about the practical difficulty of producing certain movie effects in the theater. Transcending the impossible often leads to the ridiculous: Two ladders on the floor make train tracks; an actor holding a model of a bi-wing airplane is a pilot. Startling solutions like these can't help but provoke laughter.
There are a mere four actors in the cast, but only Scheer has a single role. Kate Kenney portrays Hannay's love interest, Pamela, as well as a femme fatale and a blushing farm wife. Eric Love and Scott Renzoni handle a veritable flood of minor characters, who have to make big impressions in little bits. With evident joy, they hustle through costume changes and onstage exploits to portray this panoply. Watching them change hats, coats and accents is as much fun as watching the people they become.
Kenney's mysterious lady in black, whose hilarious German accent sticks to her teeth like tar, gets the plot started. A chance encounter — at the theater, no less — puts our hero in the gentlemanly version of her thrall. Alas, she's murdered in his flat, but her last words send him scurrying to foil a ring of villainous spies and clear his own name. To do it, he'll scamper through two dozen locations with cops and spies in hot pursuit.
Director Kathleen Keenan keeps the heat under the potboiler, but while transposing film conventions to the stage, she calls attention to the artifice of theater itself. With just four actors, a few props and limited furnishings, Keenan resolutely peels back the curtain to reveal how the magic works. When Scheer and Kenney arrive at a hotel room and the innkeeper extols the cozy fire, a painted cardboard box with paper flames is tossed from offstage.
Keenan's skill in designing stunts of physical comedy is amplified by the actors' abilities. She hands them scaffolding to climb, picture frames to wiggle through as if they were windows and an open trunk they must make comfortable as a bed. And the actors excel. What Scheer and Kenney are able to do handcuffed together is positively hilarious, while Renzoni and Love sometimes toss hats or wigs back and forth to enable the two of them to play as many as six characters within a 60-second scene.
To reinforce the experience of watching a film, the performance uses music and recorded sound effects liberally. Except for a few overt gags, Casey Covey's sound design heroically resists the easy temptation to mock the action, and instead lightly punctuates it, as a good score should.
The costumes, by Charis Churchill, are put through their paces. A typical play would only need to depict the 1935 period accurately and embody each character's personality, and Churchill manages both. But here many of the garments must also be engineered for quick changes and must define about 35 supporting characters with instantly recognizable traits. There's an art to finding just the right hat, especially when it's the only introduction the play has time for.
Keenan's conception keeps the fundamental theatricality of the show visible at all times. The simple, clever set by Claiborne Coyle supports the idea with backdrop pillars of brick walls alternating with curtains that permit multiple entrances. Top it all off with some scaffolding and loose ladders to suggest a theater backstage, and the playing space is malleable enough to serve as any of the 25-odd locations to which the movie-style script travels.
The main marvel of The 39 Steps is seeing actors become different people so quickly that their prowess at transformation is visible — and dazzling. Renzoni and Love are brilliant at twisting the kaleidoscope to reveal new characters. Then they pay these creations the high compliment of inhabiting them fully without calling attention to themselves as actors.
Kenney fills out her oh-so-standard female roles with nice hints at Pamela's self-possession, the farm wife's wide-eyed innocence and the woman in black's combination of allure and menace. But she distinguishes them all with supreme timing and virtuoso physical comedy.
Scheer is a delight as the square-jawed hero who's as self-conscious about his own good looks as he is courageous. He makes the jokes, stunts and storytelling all appear effortless, a mark of consummate skill. Whether he's stretched flat as a board balancing between chair back and seat with a gun pointed at him or delicately weaving between ardor and innocence with Pamela, Scheer captivates by losing himself in the moment.
The play begins with Hannay in the mood for something mindless and trivial. He decides to go to the theater, and so should you if you're ready to surrender to some silliness that's built on solid craft. m