Spy thriller’s execution is expertly timed, making the difficult look easy
By Charlene Baldridge | SDUN Theater Critic
Familiarity with Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film is not a prerequisite, but it deepens one’s appreciation of Patrick Barlow’s stage adaptation, actually a spoof of “The 39 Steps,” which was quite the serious spy thriller. The production is seen at Lamb’s Players Theatre through Sept. 22.
When he was interviewed earlier this year regarding “The 39 Steps,” Lamb’s Artistic Director Robert Smyth could barely hide his longing to be one of the show’s four actors. One assumes he succumbed to some gentle arm-twisting on the part of his wife, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, who is the director. Robert Smyth plays Clown #2.
Others in the company are David S. Humphrey, the sole actor who plays only one character, the protagonist; Kelsey Venter, who portrays Annabella, Pamela and Margaret; and Jesse Abeel as Clown #1.
The clowns get a huge workout, changing characters with the change of a hat before the audience’s eyes. Robert Smyth, who joined Lamb’s in 1979, is quite obviously having the time of his life, and so is Abeel, by now a Lamb’s veteran with several years’ worth of truly memorable performances. He possesses the sort of facility, versatility and depth that make an actor valuable both to a repertory company and to the community.
The same could be said of Venter, whose Lamb’s roles include Sarah in “Guys and Dolls” and Sarah in “Trying.” Humphrey’s numerous Lamb’s credits include “1776” and “The Secret Garden.”
The Aug. 21 audience had a rip-roaring good time. What appears easy is timed to the “nth degree” and all is expertly done here, abetted by Jemima Dutra’s costumes, Nathan Peirson’s lighting, Michael McKeon’s set and properties, and Deborah Smyth’s sound design based on the original by Mic Pool.
Richard Hannay (Humphrey) is an ex-pat Canadian, a lonely 37-year-old bachelor living in London. He goes to the theatre and becomes the unwitting target of an international spy ring because he harbors an opposing spy named Annabella (Venter), who is murdered by two men (Abeel and Robert Smyth). Hannay flees, in pursuit of clues given him by the doomed woman.
Venter’s other characters are a kindly farmer’s wife and a sophisticated blond named Pamela, who blows the whistle on Hannay not once but twice before discovering he’s not really Annabella’s murderer. He is telling the truth about the sinister 39 Steps spy ring, which is trying to kill him and smuggle secrets out of the country.
Abeel and Robert Smyth also portray a host of farmers, hoteliers, policemen and spies. Hannay, a fast thinker and long-distance runner, eludes the opposition repeatedly, even while famously handcuffed to Pamela, with whom he falls in love. Eventually, the feeling is mutual.
Barlow’s clever dialogue and projections include references to other Hitchcock films, and Deborah Smyth’s direction showcases her company’s talents beautifully.
The secret is staging maximum effect with a minimum of visible effort as well as few accouterments: trunks, a few ladders, odd pieces of furniture, a lamppost and human torsos, all becoming the landscape of Scotland.
“The 39 Steps”
WHERE: 1142 Orange Ave. (Coronado)
WHEN: Tuesdays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 and 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. through Sept. 22