Physical comedy dominates "The 39 Steps," the farcical whodunit by Patrick Barlow currently running at Buffalo Theatre Ensemble in Glen Ellyn.
A sendup and celebration of classic thrillers, the 2005 play is an adaptation of an adaptation. Barlow adapted the play from Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon's 1995 stage version of John Buchan's 1915 novel "The Thirty-Nine Steps." The novel also inspired Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film, whose cinematic tropes this deliciously droll bit of meta-theater aims to re-create.
"The 39 Steps"★ ★ ★
Location: McAninch Arts Center, College of DuPage, 425 Fawell Blvd., Glen Ellyn, (630) 942-4000 or atthemac.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday through Oct. 8
Running time: About two hours, including intermission
Parking: Free parking in lot adjacent to the McAninch Arts Center
Rating: For most audiences
With much of the slapstick falling to the supporting players -- identified in the playbill as Clown 1 and Clown 2 -- the leading man is left to play the straight man, a role BTE ensemble member Bryan Burke admirably performs in director Kurt Naebig's revival. But what's most affecting about Burke's Richard Hannay -- a lonely Londoner caught up in international espionage circa 1935 -- is the ache underscoring the performance.
We meet him in the play's opening moments. Bored, disenchanted with the state of the world ("elections and wars and rumors of wars"), with no "pal to go about with," the doleful Hannay concludes he would not be missed.
"I wouldn't miss me," he says. That sad realization, touchingly expressed by Burke, explains why Hannay eagerly pursues the adventure he stumbles upon. He's got nothing to lose, so why not risk his life for a mysterious woman claiming to be a spy with vital national security information? What else has he got to do?
Plenty, after the woman (an archetypal Hitchcock blonde played by Rebecca Cox) he meets at the theater accompanies him back to his apartment where she winds up dead in his lap -- a position from which Burke's Hannay delicately extricates himself. When he learns police have identified him as a prime suspect, Richard flees to Scotland where he encounters other fetching females (all played by Cox), including the agreeable wife of a gruff Scottish farmer and an attractive, stiff-upper-lip Brit named Pamela.
Along the way, Richard meets an array of Hitchcockian characters: traveling lingerie salesmen, corrupt constables, political pensioners, kindly innkeepers and a mysterious aristocrat with a missing fingertip. All of them are played by Daniel Millhouse and Matthew Singleton, whose rapid-fire transformations from salesmen to porter to constable to paperboy to matronly passenger -- all during a brief train stop -- provide some of the production's most satisfying comedy. Self-aware and broadly comic, "The 39 Steps" references such Hitchcock classics as "North By Northwest," "Rear Window" and its namesake film. (In keeping with Hitchcock tradition, the iconic director himself makes a cameo.)
Naebig creates some funny bits with cheeky salesmen and Scottish rustics and Christopher Kriz's sound design is first-rate. Unfortunately, murky lighting obscures some of the play's more cinematic moments, including a daring escape from a moving train and a subsequent foot chase.
Millhouse and Singleton have a flair for accents and outsize characters and Cox makes an aptly detached femme fatale. And Burke certainly provides a poignant counterpart to the humor. There's a moment in the second act, during which Hannay is mistaken for a political party flack, where he delivers a heartfelt speech about perseverance that suggests his Highland adventure has given him a new lease on life.
BTE's production felt a bit tentative opening night, although I suspect that will improve as the run progresses. It also felt a little too safe. This "39 Steps" lacked the madcap sensibility this type of satire requires. What's needed here is some controlled frenzy, a bit of zaniness that puts the comic thrills back in this comical thriller.