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Four actors play 40 roles in Huntington Playhouse production

Ben Saylor and Breianne Knight as Richard and Annebelle are thrust into a chaotic world of farcical espionage in the Huntington Playhouse production of "The 39 Steps." Photo courtesy of Huntington Playhouse

Huntington Playhouse in Bay Village is tackling a difficult play in its current production. “The 39 Steps” was a British Alfred Hitchcock movie that has been adapted for the stage. Unlike some plays that are faithful to the style of the original, this rethought script is a farce in the tradition of American vaudeville. Well … actually, British music hall. Stage adapter Patrick Barlow took a serious story of espionage and suspense and turned it into a comedic farce. It’s an amazing script, because he also kept all of the central plot narrative elements.

Richard Hannay is a bored Englishman in the 1930s who goes to the theater to see a variety show. The performance of “Mr. Memory” is disrupted by a gunshot. In the chaos, Richard takes home a female spy with a thick, unrecognizable and almost incomprehensible accent. She is killed in his home. Since the police will suspect him, he goes to Scotland, where he has only a map and the words “the 39 steps” to unravel the mystery she tried to confide to him.

Ben Saylor plays Richard, the man with an adventure. Saylor has improved a lot as an actor over the years. In this production, he has mastered his nonplussed facial expression while experiencing the most outrageous things. He also is the only cast member who plays one role. Breianne Knight starts off as Spy Annebelle, and after she dies in the first 10 minutes she returns as Pamela, a put-upon woman on a train who becomes part of the great chase that Richard is on. She has no choice, since for most of the second act Pamela remains handcuffed to Richard.

The all-purpose utility players in “The 39 Steps” are Greg Lavelle and Assad Khaishgi. They play more than a dozen roles each. Switching hats and trench coats, some of their costume and character changes are swift and in full view of the audience. Offstage, they put on wigs and dresses for the female roles. Under the direction of Tom Meyrose, the cast of “The 39 Steps” had scenes that take place in a manor house, on a train, in a London theater and even in an airplane. Huntington Playhouse does not have a Broadway budget, so innovation and improvisation, along with clever staging, make the show work.

On opening night, the audience soon “got it” that this is not a serious spy drama, but a farcical romp. They enjoyed seeing two cast members play multiple roles, and laughed at the intended silliness of the play. Cool, exciting “movie music” of the 1930s enhances the production. On opening night, scene changes, especially in the first act, were agonizingly slow. This should be tightened up by the second weekend. Breianne Knight is always fun to watch in comedies. Khaishgi and Lavelle struggle a bit with different voices for their multiple characters, but give a great effort.

If you see “The 39 Steps” because you are familiar with the movie, know that this is a very different treatment. You’ll find yourself laughing at the antics of the cast, and the cleverness of the rethought script. “The 39 Steps” runs weekends through Oct. 7.

 

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