NYT: ‘39 Steps’: Unlikely Broadway Survivor

Back from a long hiatus to give a shout out to my friend, Arnie:

The cast of “The 39 Steps,” from left: Jeffrey Kuhn, Arnie Burton, Jill Paice and Sean Mahon at the restaurant Angus McIndoe. The show is “an homage to the theater,” Mr. Burton said


The 1,000-watt celebrities have either gone home or on vacation. The enriching revivals from canonical playwrights have finished their runs, and the Tony winners have packed up their trophies. Starting on Monday there will be just one nonmusical on Broadway: “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.” This joyously wacky four-person show has endured cast changes, runs in three different Broadway theaters and a recession, outlasting pretty much every other straight play without the benefit of elaborate sets or well-known stars.

“It has restored my faith in the simple power of the theater,” said Jeffrey Kuhn, who portrays more than 40 different characters in less than two hours, including a vaudevillian named Mr. Memory, a Nazi fräulein in garters, a cop, a marching band, a pious farmer and a traveling lingerie salesman. His colleague Arnie Burton plays another 40.

Directed by Maria Aitken, “The 39 Steps,” now at the Helen Hayes Theater, follows the general outline of Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller of the same name, in which a hapless man becomes entangled in an espionage conspiracy and has to run for his life. Along the way the actors not only send up the film but also make joking reference to dozens of others.

Yet as Mr. Burton says, “It’s really not so much about a spoof of Hitchcock, which it is, of course; it’s really an homage to the theater.” Not the contemporary theater, where mermaids traverse the stage on wheels and gargantuan mechanical sets get bigger applause than the actors, but the nostalgic version that survives on greasepaint and hammy actors. “It’s a valentine to that kind of creativity and imagination, of doing so much with so little,” said Mr. Burton, who has been with the show since its out-of-town run in Boston in 2007 and its Broadway opening in January 2008.

With just a few props that include a table, ladders, several puppet silhouettes and spotlights, the cast members — with the help of about 12 people backstage — ingeniously recreate a chase atop a speeding train, a suspension bridge, a windy Scottish moor, a London theater and a sprawling mansion. (The show won Tony Awards for lighting and sound design.)

Recently Mr. Burton and Mr. Kuhn were having a pretheater dinner with Jill Paice (who plays three characters) and Sean Mahon (who retains his identity as the square-jawed hero throughout). Ms. Paice, who joined in June, is the newest member of the team.

“I was terribly nervous,” she said. The dizzying pace of character and scene changes demands perfect rocket-launch timing. The group of seasoned actors has quickly developed into a tightknit family, Mr. Burton said. In this type of ensemble performance, he added, “the four of us have to work together as a group, and there can’t be any divas.”

Despite the tightly orchestrated production, unforeseen troubles can arise. One evening Mr. Burton and Mr. Kuhn had hurried into a backstage corner to do a quick costume change.

“Jeffrey kept saying, ‘I’m going to be sick, I’m going to be sick,’ ” Mr. Burton recalled, “and then he starts projectile vomiting.”

“Great dinner story,” Mr. Kuhn interjected.

Both men were in the next scene, but Mr. Kuhn couldn’t appear, so Mr. Burton turned their comic dialogue into a monologue (still comic, he hoped). Mr. Kuhn’s standby got into costume, but by the following scene Mr. Kuhn managed to make it back onstage, albeit a bit pasty-faced.

Mr. Kuhn, who joined the cast in October 2008, right after the financial crash, remembered thinking it would be a short-term job because the production probably would not survive the dead days of January. “I still can’t quite figure it out,” he said. “It actually surprised me that it didn’t take the hit.”

Bob Boyett, the lead producer, said the production is close to recouping its $2.2 million investment.

Now into its second year, the play draws in tourists and passers-by who haven’t necessarily seen the Hitchcock movie or read the John Buchan novel on which it was based, or don’t know what to expect after they step inside the theater. Something clicks about 10 minutes into the show, Mr. Mahon said, when the actors begin to construct the jostling train out of four trunks, and the audience realizes what’s going on. In Ms. Paice’s eyes the audience members function like a character in the play. “They determine what type of show it is,” she said, depending on whether they understand the Hitchcock jokes or respond more to the slapstick. Different audiences have different senses of humor.

Mr. Kuhn and Mr. Burton said they do a rough assessment each night when they hear the reaction to the comic precurtain announcement to shut off cellphones. A big laugh and the actors know the audience is game.

A block away from the Helen Hayes is the Bernard B. Jacobs Theater, where Yasmina Reza’s “God of Carnage” has been residing. It is on vacation and is scheduled to resume performances after Labor Day, ending the brief monopoly of “The 39 Steps” on Broadway playgoers. “God of Carnage” also has four actors — though they are all well-known from television and film.

Mr. Burton related that the producers of “The 39 Steps” initially wanted some familiar names, but Ms. Aitken, who had directed the London production, was adamant. “You have to trust me on this,” she told them. And they did.

“It’s a play that’s been able to run a year and a half without a celebrity or a star,” Mr. Burton added. “It shows it can be done.”

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