“The 39 Steps” – Arizona Theatre Company

This review aired on KBAQ February 13, 2012


Arizona Theatre Company, Herberger Theater Center
Phoenix, AZ

Based on the silly shenanigans of the original 1905 John Buchan novel and the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film adaptation, “The 39 Steps,” in a superlatively funny Arizona Theatre Company production, is guaranteed to make theatergoers laugh.

There’s nothing profound here but there’s nothing wrong with theater that entertains especially when the Joel Sass staging is so hysterically guided and is enacted by a quartet of superb farceurs who bring out every bit of humor as the play deliciously bubbles and brews on the stage in all its wild merriment.

“The 39 Steps” was on Broadway a few seasons back and a touring version played ASU Gammage but it wasn’t as nimbly performed, or as well directed as the stellar ATC interpretation.  Sass’s artful staging brings out every humorous nuance, every tidbit of farce, and each moment of bizarre hilarity.  And Sass couldn’t have gathered better performers to bring off the silliness so masterfully.

But first a mention of Richard Hoover’s marvelous set.  He’s created a baroquely rococo false proscenium within the modern Herberger Theater Center to bring a 75-year-old theater to life where the malarkey spews forth.  Props and set pieces shoot on stage from the wings at a carefully choreographed clip to capture the many London and Scottish highlands locales where the action occurs.  Add cleverly suggestive costumes that enable three of the actors to easily shift among the characters each portray as the play evolves.

It’s a simple story about Richard Hannay who starts at the theater.  After going through murder, espionage, and several entanglements that take him from a British music hall, to Scotland, and back to the London Palladium, as he searches for the killer.  Contrived and shallow to be sure but loaded with endless opportunities for hilarious nonsense.

Robert O. Berdahl plays Hannay, the only actor to portray just one character.  He’s straight-laced and faces all the stupidity with an earnestness that makes him funny to watch.  The three women who confront Hannay are portrayed by Sarah Agnew and she is appropriately distinctive yet riley funny in each of the three very different characters.  Jim Lichtscheidl and Luverne Seifert play multiple male and female roles with sly comic hilarity as the story weaves its harebrained way through endless machinations.

If you want to be delightfully entertained, ATC’s “The 39 Steps” couldn’t be better.  It continues at the Herberger Theater Center through February 26.  For tickets, call the Arizona Theatre Company box office at 602-256-6995 or order tickets online at www.arizonatheatre.org.

Grade: B