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posted: 9/13/2017 6:00 AM

Buffalo Theatre Ensemble delivers an amusing revival of 'The 39 Steps'

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  • Buffalo Theatre Ensemble member Bryan Burke stars as a lonely Londoner who has the adventure of a lifetime in "The 39 Steps," adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock's film and John Buchan's novel.

    Buffalo Theatre Ensemble member Bryan Burke stars as a lonely Londoner who has the adventure of a lifetime in "The 39 Steps," adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock's film and John Buchan's novel.
    Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography

  • Richard Hannay (Bryan Burke), right, meets a cool, Hitchcockian blonde (Rebecca Cox) during a theatrical performance by Mr. Memory (Daniel Millhouse), second from left, and his Compère (Matthew Singleton), left, in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's "The 39 Steps."

    Richard Hannay (Bryan Burke), right, meets a cool, Hitchcockian blonde (Rebecca Cox) during a theatrical performance by Mr. Memory (Daniel Millhouse), second from left, and his Compère (Matthew Singleton), left, in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's "The 39 Steps."
    Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography

 
 

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.

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?

Richard Hannay (Bryan Burke) runs for his life in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's revival of "The 39 Steps."
Richard Hannay (Bryan Burke) runs for his life in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's revival of "The 39 Steps." - Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography

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.

In an effort to hide from police (Daniel Millhouse, left, and Matthew Singleton), Richard Hannay (Bryan Burke), second from right, enters a train compartment and kisses its unwitting occupant Pamela (Rebecca Cox) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's revival of "The 39 Steps."
In an effort to hide from police (Daniel Millhouse, left, and Matthew Singleton), Richard Hannay (Bryan Burke), second from right, enters a train compartment and kisses its unwitting occupant Pamela (Rebecca Cox) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's revival of "The 39 Steps." - Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography

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.

On the run from police and spies, Richard Hannay (Bryan Burke) takes refuge with a pair of Scottish rustics (Rebecca Cox and Matthew Singleton) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's revival of the farcical thriller "The 39 Steps."
On the run from police and spies, Richard Hannay (Bryan Burke) takes refuge with a pair of Scottish rustics (Rebecca Cox and Matthew Singleton) in Buffalo Theatre Ensemble's revival of the farcical thriller "The 39 Steps." - Courtesy of Rex Howard Photography

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.

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