>Alfred Hitchcock’s "The 39 Steps"

>I was half way through my teenage years when I first saw a drama. It was Crazy Mohan’s famous laughter riot “Marriage made in Saloon”. I did not quite understand much of the comedy in it but it was a strange first-time experience. It was muck like a movie, except that the actors were performing live, the camera angle was set pretty much the same, which is behind your cornea, no instant panning to Alps mountain for songs and most important of all it was 100% three dimensional. When the actors move on the stage, I heard the ‘thud’ from their walking across the stage, sensed the changes in their voice as they moved and spoke at the same time and saw the slight adjustments made by other performers to make sure everyone and everything is in its right place for what is going to follow and all of it happening in the same exact second. One thing that made me particularly hooked was the way the various sets and props were instantly moved around to create the surroundings required for a scene. I like plain flow of events and this particular asset of the theater-drama world really gave me the sense of transparency that I could appreciate. Since then I have only been to couple of such theater shows, all in my hometown- Chennai. Although I never gave much thought to it, I always wanted to see such play here in America. Lots of movies have been adapted from such plays, most of them from the famed Broadway district of New York city. For this thanksgiving holiday weekend I took a trip to the ‘Big Apple’ with some of my friends and after giving it a serious thought this time I decided I should enjoy the theater-drama-luxury. And by cause-effect principle, on a cold, windy November afternoon, we were seated at the legendary, warm, kind of old-style Colt Theater in Broadway, NYC for the 2’o clock drama- “The 39 Steps”.

Yes, it IS a long prelude, but it helps to understand the cause-effect principle. The 39 steps is a comical recreation of the similarly named Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film, which is an adaptation from John Buchanan’s novel published in 1915. It’s a classic spy-action-romantic-thriller story, which somehow has comedy in its core. It opens with a monologue by the hero Richard Hannay (Charles Edwards) who is a suave, low profile gentleman in a World War II imminent Britain. The repeated news of war and rumors of war on the tabloids further bore Richard who is fed up with the tedium of his life. To break free, wanting to ‘do something utterly pointless’, he decides to go to the theater where he meets Annabella Schmidt (Jennifer Ferrin). As the story moves she mysteriously gets killed at his home as result of which he flees from the cops (a number of them)/bad guys (again, a number of them) while he unfolds the ‘mysteriously’ part mentioned earlier. Note the Key word in the above sentence is ‘A number of them’.

The show only has four members as cast. That’s right, other than the lights engineer, only 4 members perform for the whole 2-hour production. Charles Edwards plays Richard, Ms Ferrin plays Schmidt, a farm girl called Margaret and Richard’s eventual love interest Pamela and all the other roles are performed by Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton who are aptly referred in the stage notes as Man#1 and Man#2 since it would be pointless to list all the characters they play. To get a perspective of the effort, imagine Dhasavadharam Kamal. Now imagine that he must change from one character to another in front of the camera. Now imagine that there is no re-take and everything, down to last sigh from the script, must be performed in one continuous flow and still be mentioned as “Man #1 and Man #2”. Together, they become all of the ‘A number of them’, I mentioned earlier. They must really love their job.

The show is simply astonishing at various levels and it kept me and my friends talking about it for hours after it ended. Throughout the play Mr.Saunders and Mr.Burton produce some exceptional performances moving props and exchanging costumes between them as they morph from casual onlookers to policemen, to dangerous spies, to Irish hotel manager-couple, the dangerous villain couple and at one point life-less stage props. Apart from acting they also carry/move/adjust/remove most of the stage artifacts with such precision that its hard believe that they don’t even break a sweat. The best part of the play was the scene in which Richard travels in a train with a couple of talkative passengers. Just using some battered wooden trunks and frugal yet brilliant lighting, combined with perfect synchronization between the actors the scene was an absolute winner leading to great applause and appreciation from the audience. Another such scene would be using 4 chairs and steering wheel to simulate a bumpy car ride. It’s hard to explain the amount of work and the way it was executed. It’s something that must be seen to appreciate and enjoy.

Mr.Charles, playing Richard takes center stage from start to finish guiding the story and sometimes controlling Mr.Saunders and Mr.Burton from over doing things (as per script, of course). I always liked the British accent and when it’s mixed with charm and excellence its quite entertaining. Ms.Ferrin performs her part to the fullest matching everything with her male colleagues on stage. But the clear winners of the show where Man#1 and Man#2 who seem to be present through out the play, the fact which I realized only when, in a comic twist, Mr. Burton himself mentions it.

Not very often that I feel that I got the best value for my money, but this one is definitely the best 69$ I spent for a product of entertainment value.