Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps Is Gut-Busting Farce from Arizona Theatre Company

Categories: Curtains, Theater

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Tim Fuller
From left, Sarah Agnew, Jim Lichtscheidl, and Robert O. Berdahl in one of several indelible images from Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps
It's just polished and adorable silliness from beginning to end. That's most of what there is to say about the Tony-winning lunacy of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps, in a fine production transplanted from Minnesota's Guthrie Theater by Arizona Theatre Company.

Director Joel Sass has the four performers (one of whom plays hero Richard Hannay, one of whom plays three femmes fatales and a fleeting Scotsman, and the other two of whom play the approximately 145 remaining roles) working full-time, obviously, usually in overdrive and milking everything for its maximum physical-comedy potential, from a leather desk chair to a roadside stile to a tasseled fez. It was difficult to choose one photo to feature above.

The plot is basically the same as the Hitchcock film, which was based on John Buchan's 1915 action-spy novel. It's a fairly simple tale of danger and intrigue -- I think. The goofiness takes prominence here, with nods to other Hitchcock films and pop-culture motifs, and I couldn't even tell you exactly what happens at the end, except that Britain is saved and love conquers all.

Everyone is the cast is extremely sharp and skillful and funny, including Sarah Agnew, who has to be all those things and also the pretty girl, which isn't always easy. But Jim Lichtscheidl, as one of the two utility "clowns," is especially stunning in his many small parts. You may notice a resemblance to Chris Elliott in the photo above, and his eyes can be even buggier than they look there, reaching all the way to the back of the house. However, he's a more versatile performer and a more attractive man than Elliot has ever shown us, while being just as commandingly ridiculous.

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photo by Ed Flores
Richard Hoover's set is basically another character in the show, transforming the Herberger's Center Stage into a posh London music hall (and the Palladium theater) for the opening and closing sequences, complete with red-and-gilt proscenium and boxes, and bringing the stage floor to life with wheeled doors, furniture, and whatnot that are in almost constant motion. After Hannay, played with tongue-in-cheek suavity by Robert O. Berdahl, plunges off the Forth Bridge in flight from police, Michael Sommers' hysterical and useful shadow puppetry takes the chase to the moors and loch with humbling virtuosity.

Just when you're thinking Act II can't top Act I, Agnew's Pamela gets handcuffed to Hannay and we're off, again. (Watch for the surprisingly erotic chemistry that rears its head when she removes her soaked stockings and his hand has to go along for the ride. Because you won't be able to stop laughing, either.)

Phoenix's opening-night crowd looked as swell as we do only in cool weather, some audience members giving a nod to the glam environment and some even punching up their outfits with some noirish and/or between-the-wars touches. You should, too! It'll be fun.

Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps continues through Sunday, February 26, at Herberger Theater Center, 222 East Monroe Street. Two extra performances have just been added, so there should be plenty of good seats to choose from. For tickets, $32 to $69, call 602-256-6995 or click here.

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