Review: 39 Steps a fast-paced riot by Center Repertory Company

By Pat Craig
April 3, 2013

Although steeped in literary and cinematic history, "The 39 Steps," in its present stage form, is more like the heir apparent to the take-no-prisoners silliness of "Bullshot Crummond" and "El Grande de Coca Cola" -- not to mention the Three Stooges, Spike Jones, Andy Kaufman and any sixth-grade classes with a substitute teacher at the helm.

And the show doesn't get much better than the Center Repertory Company production at Walnut Creek's Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, which is intimate enough to not only let you see the players sweat, but for you to observe every comedic nuance.

And there are, as a matter of fact, a surprising number of comic flourishes and details, especially for a play that moves like a runaway freight train made entirely of Silly Putty.

This is due to Patrick Barlow's no-prisoners script in the hands of a director, Mark Anderson Phillips, and cast that has earned a reputation for swinging a big comic bat.

"The 39 Steps" is a spy-and-crime yarn, pureed in a Cuisinart of farce, that takes you all over England and Scotland in just over two hours. It is awash in kippered red herrings, hoary jibes at various Alfred Hitchcock movies and 1930s thrillers, even spoofs on the pronunciation of tea.

The story line essentially revolves around identifying what the 39 Steps of the title are, and figuring out any of several plots against the lives of the players. Vague? Yes, but the purpose here isn't to solve a crime, but to give you an evening laughing your head off. And for the most part, you do, although things slow down some in the second act.

The play features a cast of four filling around 100 roles. Most of them are played by Cassidy Brown and Mark Farrell, who spend the evening mining laughs in a number of guises as they change costumes at a dizzying pace. Jennifer Erdmann plays the various "love interests," and Ben Johnson plays the dashing hero Richard Hannay, a character so British he bleeds bangers and mash.

The actors are top-notch and directed well by Phillips, who gives them plenty of room to run.

Also giving the actors room to run is the set created by Eric Sinkkonen. It is a recreation of an old English theater, with boxes on either side of the proscenium (another sly tribute to Hitchcock) and minimal set pieces, which allow enough to let you know the setting, but don't interfere with the rapid pace.

Review: The Best 39 Steps that I've ever taken

By Lee Hartgrave
April 10, 2013

This Expensive, handsome stage production is the best "39 Steps" that I've ever taken. Of course, It would be even more delicious if they would add just one more step. I'm just trying  to squeeze in another joke -- I don't want to stop. How about forty one steps? 

I really, really enjoyed the show. The actors whiz by so fast in this pulsating chase thriller as they nail every nuance. There have been many versions of the play over the years. Personally -- this one at 'Center Rep' is certainly the best. This fast paced who dunnit, is the most clever show ever. 150 zany, screwball comics are on the stage. But you will finally realize that there are only Four positively thrilling Actors blast their way to Stardom. It's the savviest of comedy. They score a Knockout in the acting department.  

I'm gonna have a hard time getting this spoof out of my mind. I'm itching to see it again, and again. Heck, there is even an on-stage plane crash. I'm glad I wasn't in it. But to make up for the plane crash - I bought myself a cap with a propeller on it. It worked. Thanks Alfred Hitchcock, for all those steps.  

This '39 Steps' is enormously satisfying And Astonishingly Accomplished. It gets everything right. Get ready for a Vibrant and Delightful evening or matinee. "It's Perfect!"


Positively Thrilling Direction by Mark Anderson Phillips

Adapted by Patrick Barlow. From the novel by John Buchan - From the movie of Alfred Hitchcock. 


Review: Another Brilliant Production

By Charles Jarrett
April 14, 2013

Another “brilliant” production has just been launched by the Center Repertory Company who is providing Lesher Center patrons with a light hearted look on one of Alfred Hitchcock’s most revered early British spy movies. I did not know what to expect when I received promotional material on an adaptation by Playwright Patrick Barlow of Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”! After all, how could anyone take such a highly acclaimed movie and turn it into a play, and yet pay tribute to one of the truly great movie producers. I didn’t want to do any research ahead of time, simply wanting to put my trust in Artistic Director Michael Butler, who has been more than living up to my hopes and expectations since he took over at Center Repertory Theater.

The 39 Steps first began as a 1935 British spy thriller film directed by Alfred Hitchcock and starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll. The movie is based in large part on the 1915 adventure novel The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan. The film takes us on a wild journey with man, a Richard Hannay, who attends a demonstration in a London music hall theater by a man with superlative memory recall, who is described as “Mr. Memory”. In the midst of the show, shots ring out and in the ensuing chaos, Hannay finds himself protecting a beautiful and mysterious woman who seems very frightened, enclosed in the circle of his arms. She begs him to protect her and to take her home with him to his apartment. He tries to talk her out of her desire to go home with him, but curious about this very attractive and somewhat strange woman, he gives in and they return to his flat.

In the seeming safety of his apartment, after a couple of drinks, she tells him that she is a counterespionage spy, being chased by assassins, and that she needed him to cover departure from the theater so that she could get safely away. He questions her and in the process, she reveals that she has uncovered a plot to steal vital British military secrets, engineered by a man with the top joint missing from one of his fingers. She mentions her concern with the “39 steps”, but does not explain its meaning. In a moment of unguarded separation, she is mortally stabbed in the back by an unknown assailant. While she lies dying in Hannay’s arms, he bravely and reluctantly agrees to help a her take steps to prevent the military secrets from being removed from England. He rushes out of the apartment heading for the Scottish city indicated on the map clutched in the hand of the dying woman. When the body of this woman is discovered in his apartment immediately following his departure, Hannay is accused of the murder. While in transit to the Scottish city aboard a train, he sees a front page newspaper article naming him as the primary suspect in this woman’s death. With the police in hot pursuit, Hannay attempts to use a chance meeting with another attractive woman as a distraction in order to save himself and to separate the spy’s from their stolen secrets before they can leave the country.

Of the four major film versions of the novel, Hitchcock’s film has been by far the most acclaimed. In 1999, the British Film Institute polled 1000 film and television industry people and the film version by Alfred Hitchcock came in number four in the top 100 films in the history of British filmmaking.

Having never heard of Patrick Barlow, this show offered me an opportunity to discover what expertise he had that allowed Barlow to take one great work and to convert it into another successful work of British theater. Patrick Barlow is the founder, Artistic Director and Chief Executive of the two-man “National Theatre of Brent”, which has performed on stage, on television and on radio. His specialty is to take very complex works and convert them into two or four man productions, often with comedy twists on original works. Such is the case with this iteration of The 39 Steps, where it transitioned into a brilliantly written comedy melodrama in which four actors take on the roles of many quick change characters. Most of us have seen this attempted before, but I can honestly say that in this production, the process has been transformed into a work of pure art!

The hero in this production, Richard Hannay, is played by Ben Johnson. An actress played by Jennifer Erdmann, plays the part of all of the women with whom Hannay has romantic entanglements. Two other fine actors (Mark Farrell and Cassidy Brown) play every other character in the show: heroes, villains, men, and women, over 100 roles altogether. This often requires lightning fast quick-changes and occasionally requires these actors to play multiple characters all at once. Thus the film’s serious spy story is played on stage entirely for laughs, with a script is full of allusions to (and puns on the titles of) other Alfred Hitchcock films, including Rear Window, Psycho, Vertigo and even North by Northwest.

This show continues Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinees on Sundays at 2:30 p.m., now through Saturday, April 17th in the Margaret Lesher Theater in the Dean Lesher Regional Center for the Arts, at 1601 Civic Drive in Walnut Creek. Tickets range in price between $38 and $47 each. Call 943-SHOW (7469) or visit the Barnes and Noble Bookstore at 1149 South Main Street or check out their website at www.lesherARTScenter.org for more information or tickets purchases.

Director Mark Anderson Phillips has incorporated every possible twist of an over imaginative actor’s mind to facilitate new ways make the impossible - seem possible!! From sinister men standing beneath a street lamp post when there isn’t any, to men riding on the outside of a train at high speed through a tunnel, when there isn’t any, but yet making you believe those props are really there! This is truly a “WOW” production in every respect, one you certainly have to see believe, and believe it you certainly will, if this review persuades you to go see a terrific show!