Play Review: ‘The 39 Steps’ Is Espionage Hilarity at Playhouse

By J.E.Ballantyne Jr.

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Richard Hannay, a bored, somewhat hapless Londoner, decides he needs something to pick his lackluster life up, What could be better than going to the theater for an evening of entertainment? As he enjoys the performance of a very robotic photographic memory performer, named Mr. Memory, a shot is fired in the theater and Hannay’s life spins totally out of control.

The shot, fired by Annabella Schmidt, to distract two mysterious men who are following her, sends her scurrying into Hannay’s flat for protection. The only problem is that his flat doesn’t provide such an escape – he finds her murdered the next morning. With police suspecting Hannay of the murder, the chase is on.

Hannay must find the mysterious group known as The 39 Steps, which is about to sneak top secret documents out of the country. But he must do it before the police catch up with him.

That is the premise of “The 39 Steps,” which opened Friday at The Youngstown Playhouse.

The fast-paced and silly comedy, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan, spoofs various Alfred Hitchcock films – including the film version of “The 39 Steps.”

The Playhouse originally staged the show in 2012 with director David Jendre leading the charge. With Jendre’s untimely death several years ago, the Playhouse decided to pay tribute to him with a re-staging of the production.

Director Johnny Pecano calls himself more of a proxy for this production since the staging is exactly as Jendre designed it 11 years ago. Almost all of the elements of the show are Jendre’s genius with some other things added that add some extra zest. Pecano has done a masterful job in putting the craziness of this show back on the Playhouse stage. The blocking and bits may be Jendre’s but the timing
and the execution are all Pecano,

And timing is everything in this show. One missed word, line or bit and the entire thing can come tumbling down. That did not happen. This was a fast moving train that once it got started picked up speed and the audience rode an exciting and hilarious track. Pecano also designed the sound for the show and cleverly wove in many musical background pieces from various Hitchcock films.

And speaking of Hitchcock, numerous references turn up throughout to many of his films. Part of the enjoyment is picking them all out.

The cast is led by John Cox as Richard Hannay. Cox played the role previously and he is the perfect choice. He is seldom, if ever, off stage and his character undergoes any number of pratfalls and pitfalls. I’m sure he’ll lose significant weight by the end of the run as he spends the entire evening running, climbing, crawling and putting himself through untold amounts of physical exertion. Cox presents the character as an immediately likeable kind of guy. His energy and his timing never falter and his performance actually gets better and better the further into the show he gets.

Candace DiLullo, also an original Playhouse cast member, plays Annabella Schmidt; Pamela; and Margaret. DiLullo never disappoints in any appearance on stage but she really shows her versatility in this production. Not only does she play three totally different characters but she does it with little time in between each. She creates a seductively mysterious Annabella and is reminiscent of several Hitchcock characters. She then becomes Pamela, a woman Hannay encounters on the train as he escapes to Scotland. With a dignified and uppity aire, Pamela herself becomes somewhat of a mystery. Just when you figure her out, DiLullo pulls the plug. She then shows up as scatterbrained Margaret as Hannay hides out in a farmhouse.

Jason Green and Jeanine Rees pick up the rest of the acting duties. And there are many. The two, billed as Clown 2 and Clown 1, respectively, portray some 50 characters between them. These two provide most of the slap-stick humor which is rampant throughout the show.

Green, also in the previous production, is in top form as Mr. Memory, and as numerous female characters that pop in and out. Rees, the only newbie in the production,likewise dishes up some great characters. She is particularly effective as a train passenger/newsboy as she literally flips back and forth between the two right on stage. Her transitions are like lightning but are done so smoothly that it’s like both characters are there together.Green and Rees carry much of the weight of the show. Costume changes are literally in seconds before re-entering as someone else. It’s like watching a pit crew at the Indy 500. The spine of the show actually resides in these two and they don’t miss a beat or a split second.

Leslie Brown’s set design and lighting are major contributors to the show’s success. mThe set is minimal with set pieces literally flying on and off from right and left. Doors are brought on and cleverly worked into the movement to turn them to be the inside of the door or another door. A chase across the Moors is cleverly created with the use of a set piece and shadow puppets. The only problem was that
some of the puppets were too small if you are sitting very far back and lose some of the effectiveness.

Brown’s lighting is sharp and localizes many scenes very effectively. It gives a real thriller feel to the entire production.

Costumes are another major element. Costumers Molly Galano, Sindy Hanna, and Susi Thompson have done amazing work not only costuming each character but also doing so to enable changes to be done super fast. There probably isn’t any velcro left anywhere in Youngstown.

Espionage is normally taut, thrilling and keeps you on the edge of your seat. But “The 39 Steps” is silly, exhilarating and keeps you laughing from beginning to end. Whether you are a regular Playhouse attendee or have never been there before, don’t miss this show and this is no “expedient exaggeration!”

“The 39 Steps” will continue”
June 17, 23, 24 at 7:30 .m.
June 18, 25 at 2:30 p.m.

Pictured at top: Jeanine Rees, Jason Green, Candace DiLullo and John Cox comprise the cast of the spy spoof “The 39 Steps,” which opened Friday at The Youngstown Playhouse.

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