Being a filmmaker must be a rather depressing occupation -- because you know from the outset that no matter what you do, you'll never create anything approaching the genius of Alfred Hitchcock.
Even in the films he himself maintained were flawed (Stage Fright and its unreliable narrator, or the explosion in Sabotage, for instance), there's technique and vision no other director has come close to matching.
To say I'm a Hitchcock fan puts it mildly, so it was with great anticipation that I made my way to City Theatre for the Pittsburgh premiere of Patrick Barlow's stage adaptation of The 39 Steps. The show recreates the entire movie onstage, as a comedy, with only four actors: One plays the hero, one actress the film's three women, and two actors all the other characters.
Though taken from a novel by John Buchan, the 1935 film demonstrates how "Hitchcock" Hitchcock had already become, with its wrongly accused hero, cool blonde, urbane villain and climax set at a landmark.
The show supposedly celebrates Hitchcock's oeuvre with references to other work, but I can't say that's true. A stray line or two every 10 minutes or so, and some of the music cues from Vertigo, Psycho and North by Northwest are pretty much it, and none of them feel integral to the event. Even Mel Brooks' Hitchcock parody High Anxiety is a lot more Hitch-specific.
Rather, The 39 Steps is actually a celebration of theater -- mounting a cast-of-hundreds work with only four people. With its quick changes, inventive staging and building frenzy, Barlow has really written a Ray Cooney-style farce. All we're missing is slamming doors.
I can count on one hand the number of people in this city who know how to direct comedy, and Tracy Brigden is in that small group. Which makes this off-kilter City Theatre production that much more confusing.
Don't get me wrong: What's onstage is fine, featuring quality performances from a squared-jawed Sam Redford as the hero, the chameleon Rebecca Harris as the dames, and the protean team of Tom Beckett and Evan Zes as everybody else.
It's just that what is there has the wrong feel. What should be free-wheeling imagination and seat-of-the-pants inventiveness plays out with studied deliberation. There needs to be a sense of four actors facing an insurmountable challenge, and succeeding only through wit, pluck and gusto. By contrast, this production has an almost serene sense of balance to it.
In the words of Norman Bates, they all need to "go a little mad sometimes."
The 39 Steps continues through Nov. 7. City Theatre, 1300 Bingham St., South Side. 412-431-2489 or www.citytheatre.org
- Photo courtesy of Suellen Fitzsimmons
- Hitchcocked: Rebecca Harris, Tom Beckett (background) and Sam Redford in City Theatre's The 39 Steps.