Perhaps there will be a few theatergoers who won't appreciate the current production of "The 39 Steps" at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre. It is, after all, an adaptation of a mostly forgotten Alfred Hitchcock film and mostly done so for laughs. When translated to the stage, the inherent silliness of the story &emdash; an ordinary British bachelor caught up in an absurdly complicated spy ring &emdash; is the primary attraction. The Rep’s production, directed by Bob Hupp, delivers the silliness with expert flair and even generates an emotional connection. But maybe there are some in the audience expecting and wanting more meat on their theatrical bones.
This group has to be in tiny minority because "The 39 Steps" is like theatrical champagne &emdash; it's bright, fizzy and will lift your spirits. The trick at the center in which four actors play a cast of a hundreds and create on stage what only makes sense to film (such as a chase on top of a speeding train) is a trick &emdash; but one that’s a seemingly endless fountain of fun. And, while "The 39 Steps" is quite funny, the most notable attribute is how much fun it is to watch. It will put and keep a smile on your face.
The race begins with dapper, pencil-mustached Richard Hanney (played by Avery Clark) bemoaning to the audience of his boring life in London and the endless newspaper talk of war. He needs a diversion, something trivial, "I know. I’ll go to the theater!" he exclaims to great guffaws. There are many more knowing winks to the audience to come.
Of course Hanney is almost instantly delivered from his boredom and into the arms of the beautiful but mysterious Annabelle Schmidt (the first of three roles for Nikki Coble), who talks of secrets, Scotland and then falls over dead with a knife in her back. On the run, Hanney bumps into and flees from a legion of characters, all of them played by Jason Guy (Clown #1) or Jason Collins (Clown #2). All of the crazy action is played out on Mike Nichols' striking but spare set that’s pretty much a gold frame for a proscenium stage complete with a eye-catching purple curtain. '
The actors transport us to the speeding train, the Scottish mansion, a runaway car and elsewhere with the help of lights and a few props and their tremendous skill. The clowns are the ones who literally due the heavy lifting (including a lamppost in one of the play’s best gags) but the pair are graceful and precise as ballet dancers. Only in a few spots did it seem like Guy and Collins go too broad (the couple that runs the hotel, for instance), but that was rare.
Clark has the straight man role but he's smart and intuitive and so doesn’t miss many chances for finding laughs. For proof, check out the way he falls asleep. Really, Clark effortlessly captures and keeps the attention thrown his way. The Rep has benefited greatly from his presence this season (he was the lead in "Hamlet") and would do well to find him more rolls. But those who haven’t had the chance or are in the mood for a sweet night in theater need to check out "The 39 Steps."