It’s 1935 England, and rumors of war fill the air. But to an effete, good-looking bachelor named Robert Hannay, it’s all just such a bore. So he goes to the theater for a diversion, and suddenly finds himself sucked into a struggle for his life and England’s future, as he’s framed for murder and learns of a plot to steal British military secrets. Foreign spies, mysterious women and clueless cops ensue as he races from the wilds of the Scottish moors to the stage of the London Palladium to clear his name.
That’s the plot of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film “The 39 Steps,” acclaimed as the first spy thriller as well as the one that set the template for every James Bond and Jason Bourne flick to follow. Playwright Patrick Barlow took that story and transformed it into a wildly inventive farce that captivated audiences on the West End and Broadway.
The New York Times’ Ben Brantley called the play “throwaway theater at its best,” adding “and that’s no backhanded compliment.” I couldn’t agree more. This brilliantly stripped-down trifle runs through Dec. 23 at the Mile Square Theatre, the utilitarian but comfortable little space tucked under the Hoboken viaduct on 14th Street.
Joe Delafield plays the dashing Canadian bachelor Hannay, impeccably attired in a tweed suit and pencil mustache, whose life changes when he whiles away an evening watching a vaudeville performer doing memory tricks. Annabella Schmitt, a beautiful woman in black with an indistinguishable foreign accent, interrupts the performance with a gunshot, then begs Hannay to let her hide in his apartment. Schmitt tells Hannay that she’s a foreign agent in pursuit of Nazi spies who plan to smuggle secret plans out of the country vital to Britain’s air defenses. Hannay doesn’t believe her at first, but begins to suspect something’s afoot when Schmitt returns to his apartment with a dagger in her back.
Alycia Kunkle plays Annabella as well as the other two women who figure in Hannay’s adventure, a tourist named Pamela and a Scottish innkeeper’s wife named Margaret. The rest of the cast consists of two actors billed as Clown #1 and Clown #2, the former a stocky, rugged straightman played by Zachary Fine, the latter a rubber-faced runt named Evan Zes. Both are gifted comics.
Most of “The 39 Steps” takes place in our imagination, with the two clowns constantly changing costumes and wigs to play dozens of both male and female parts, from the villainous spy to dutiful servants to married Scottish innkeepers to a variety of cops, including a couple of trench-coated henchmen to a Scotland Yard inspector in a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker.
The action is nonstop — delivered mostly through clever pantomime — as Hannay climbs outside a speeding train, works his way down the trestle of a dangerous bridge, crawls out windows, bicycles through the moors, and visits castles, police stations, hotels and his own bachelor pad, all with virtually no props save a couple of old steamer chests and freestanding doors and window jambs. Director Mark Shanahan keeps the action moving at a furious clip, save for a few moments when Hannay gets to woo the women being thrust into his life. The cast even drops the fourth wall on occasion, as the ridiculousness of the two clowns swapping wigs and coats back and forth, willy-nilly, gets so ridiculously frantic that a wink and a giggle let the audience know that they’re in on the joke.
There’s a lot of Monty Python in this send-up of genre stereotypes, especially with either Fine or Zes in drag every few scenes. I laughed, and I laughed a lot, and there’s really not more you can ask of a silly play like this.
Ben Brantley had it right. This is throwaway theater. And that’s exactly why it’s worth seeing.
“The 39 Steps” is at Mile Square Theatre in Hoboken through Dec. 23; visit milesquaretheatre.org.