For those of us who have vague recollections of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie “The 39 Steps,” rest assured that this is not a stage version of that movie. Rather, it is a parody of that movie — and of the entire genre of Hitchcock films. Director Rick Dethlefsen has assembled a seamless sequence of sight gags and silly shtick that is sufficiently sharp and snappy — and also overcomes the torpor of hot August nights and lack of ventilation of the old red barn of Fitzgerald Park in Grand Ledge.
The play opens with Jason Woodworth, in the lead role of Hannay, duplicating the dead-pan mannerisms of Masterpiece Theatre’s Alastair Cook. The play soon explodes, however, into a flurry of activity, with overlapping action scenes featuring actors hanging perilously off the sides of virtual railroad cars and strobe lighting effects simulating slo-mo movements that result in impeccable comic timing. Three other actors round out the cast, each of whom play multiple roles and who keep things moving throughout most of the first act. A scene with multiple hat changes, each one suggesting a different character with a different accent, accelerates to hats dropping everywhere, and while the weight of sweat-laden costumes slows down the action a bit in Act II, a bawdy bedroom scene between the two main actors, complete with handcuffs, keeps the audience alert and attentive.
There isn’t much of a real plot to this convoluted comedy. Rather, it is like a storm surge of oncoming ocean waves, one joke crashing in after another until the audience is applauding wildly. A scene near the top of the show in which Kathleen Egan, in the role of Annabelle, dies from a hyper-dramatic stabbing and falls across Hannay seated in a chair, ends with Hannay realizing he is pinned down and has to crawl out from under her. His escape from under her now-dead body is a must-see extensive sight gag.
Josh Martin and Jeff Kennedy are Clown I and Clown II and play most of the supporting roles. (I lost count of how many at 12.) Combining fright-wigs and a variety of English, Scottish and German accents with characters of indeterminate gender, Martin and Kennedy set the stage on fire with their comic improvisations.
There comes a point at which one realizes that this play isn’t going anywhere. No matter. An improvised airplane wheels across the stage, a la “North by Northwest.” No context. An actress climbs a 2-foot ladder announcing that she has … (dramatic pause) … ”Vertigo.” The audience groans, then laughs. The sound track from “Birds” is injected. No relevance. Each time the title of the play is mentioned, there is a dramatic movie music cue. Bits go on and on, until, eventually, the audience is exhausted from laughter. Mercifully, it ends, and the cast of four, now sweat hogs, drip their way onto the stage for a final set of earned applause and damp bows. Phew!
The 39 Steps
Over the Ledge Theatre Company
Over the Ledge Theatre Co. Ledges Playhouse
127 Fitzgerald Park Dr., Grand Ledge
8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday
2 p.m. Sunday
$10 adults, $8 seniors, $6 students