Metropolis Performing Arts Centre has just about everything it needs for a successful revival of the farcical thriller "The 39 Steps," a celebration and sendup of mystery thrillers and the cinematic tropes that define them.
The production has an engaging leading man in Edward Fraim, a suitably spunky female love interest in Ellen Cribbs and a pair of able clowns in Joseph Daniels and Andrew Pond. But while director David Belew's production has clever moments, it's not polished enough to properly serve Patrick Barlow's sly adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film and John Buchan's 1915 novel.
"The 39 Steps"★ ★ ½
Location: Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, 111 W. Campbell St., Arlington Heights, (847) 577-2121 or metropolisarts.com
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday, 7 p.m. Saturday and 3 p.m. Sunday through April 3. Also 1 p.m. Feb. 24, March 9 and 23
Running time: About two hours, with intermission
Parking: Street parking available along with a nearby garage
Rating: For most audiences
Four actors, using minimal props and sets, play dozens of characters in this re-creation of a Hitchcock thriller. Trademark visuals include a daring escape from a moving train and a fog-shrouded foot chase along with the requisite romance between the leading man and a cool blonde that figured in so many of the director's films. Allusions to such Hitchcock classics as "Rear Window" and "North By Northwest" are scattered throughout "The 39 Steps," which is essentially an homage to theater, rooted in cinema.
A droll little show (conceived by Simon Corbie and Nobby Dimon), it has a fair amount of shtick, often accompanied by the equivalent of a wink and a nudge from this hardworking cast. When the comic business works, "The 39 Steps" is a delight. But the business has to be razor sharp, and that is not always the case with the Metropolis production, which has promise, but needs more polish and better pacing.
The plot centers on Fraim's Richard Hannay, a tweedy, Canadian expatriate living in London. Bored and a bit sorry for himself, he decides to pursue "something mindless and trivial, something utterly pointless" and settles on theater. At the performance, he meets the mysterious Annabella Schmidt (Cribbs, in one of several roles), who accompanies him back to his apartment where their brief encounter is interrupted by her murder.
Suspected of being the killer and with the police on his heels, Richard catches a train to Scotland, which seems to be the epicenter for international espionage. Along the way he encounters a cool blonde (Cribbs again) as well as traveling salesmen, doddering politicians, constables, innkeepers and spies, all of them played by the indefatigable Daniels and Pond.
In fact, some of the production's funniest moments come courtesy of Daniels and Pond, who are listed in the program as Clown 1 and Clown 2. They're especially agile at shifting characters, evidenced during the train station scene in which Daniels and Pond don and doff their caps and coats to play passengers, the conductor, a police officer and a newsboy in quick succession.
While I suspect the effects will synchronize over the course of the run, on opening night the sound and light cues felt a bit sloppy, which blunted the impact of the visual puns. For example, the train whistle that supersedes the housekeeper's scream when she discovers a dead body in her employer's apartment wasn't as piercing as it could be and dulled the effect. Speaking of a dull effect, the chase across the bridge (a nice scenic element by Katie Alvord-Wendling) was almost too murky to elicit many thrills.
But there are laughs and they don't all come courtesy of the clowns. The likable Fraim and Cribbs are well-matched as a pair of strangers shackled together who manage to find a little romance in the midst of comic mayhem.