To me, of all the genres, suspense and comedy share the most qualities. How they take similar approaches in their mechanics to storytelling and interacting with the audience to incite, although very different, but very specific reactions would make it seem like turning one of Hitchcock’s classic thrillers into a comedy make near perfect sense.
In a thriller you build anticipation toward a catharsis. In a comedy you do the same. In a thriller you surprise people with a twist or keep them off guard by staying a step ahead of them. In comedy you make people laugh by surprising them and staying a step ahead as well. If someone knows the joke is coming, or twist – you’re dead in the water. In a thriller you keep the stakes high so you never know if the main character will make it out alive. In a comedy the stakes need to be even higher so when something happens to the characters and they respond accordingly, you laugh. But you have to believe in those stakes!
As a filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock knew how to deal with these things extremely well. He also knew how to build suspense, create 3-Dimensional characters you cared about, had pitch perfect timing, delved into wit and irony, shocked you while staying true to the story and characters, he knew how to tell a coherent story that involved you from beginning to end…all crucial elements when approaching comedy and all elements that La Mirada’s misguided Alfred Hitchcock’s the 39 Steps lacks.
Real quick, the synopsis is – well, the same as the film. Watch it, you’ll enjoy it more and it’ll cost you less. As with any film noir, the main character Richard Hannay, played by Andrew Borba, is your common man, who becomes entangled in something much bigger than he’s ready for, but rises to the occasion. Because of his penchant for falling in love with any woman he lays eyes on, he brings a German dame (Dana Green, who plays the menagerie of love interests throughout the show) back to his house. This mysterious woman tells him she is in danger, and fills him in on a secret plot to steal something out of the country called the 39 Steps. She needs his help to get to the people who are behind this, only she’s murdered in the middle of the night and Hannay is accused of it. So in order to clear his name he has to go through the dangerous process of uncovering the mystery and bringing down the bad guys.
Sounds intriguing, right? However, the problem with this first scene is the problem that never goes away. The comedy undercuts any level of reality, or sense of story, so the stakes and the conflict are yanked out from underneath the actors before anything of interest can happen. And I was excited to come see the show. To tell you the truth, I’m excited to go see any live theatre. I want it to be good and succeed. I am also a theatre artist. But I will not kiss ass (as I saw so many people in the lobby doing after the production) when something is simply not good.
This production is filled from beginning to end with such an unnecessary amount of gags and actors mugging and repetitive chase scenes that you cannot watch a scene play out from beginning to end without someone throwing their hands in the air, trying to force a laugh out of nothing and sucking out all opportunity to build dramatic tension. And yes, even in a comedy, you need dramatic tension. Everyone from Monty Python to Bugs Bunny to Mel Brooks knows this. But the director, Jessica Kubzansky seems to have no idea how to build one off of the other; silliness for the sheer sake of it and silliness without wit – perhaps an even bigger problem. You might argue, but “The Producers” was silly for the sake of being silly. Not quite. Max and Leo feel fear, pain, love, regret – all of the things that make them human and worth watching. You want them to succeed (or in their case not succeed.) In “39 Steps” Hannay is played as a cypher – you never believe that he won’t make it out of any given situation alive. He seems almost completely unaffected by a woman who has been murdered in his flat that incites the story in the first place. And they use what could have been a human moment to build comedy from, even in that moment, into a thankless gag - give us some meat! With the barrage of meaningless, meandering jokes that follow, there are simply no surprises. You can time out when someone is going to introduce a gag and usually be correct.
This is unfortunate as I saw Matt Walker (playing multiple roles as Clown #1) in Fleetwood Macbeth not long ago at La Mirada and he was hilarious. Here he grabs a few chuckles, mainly with throw away lines, of which there are few. Also, Green seems like a capable actress who makes the best of the proceedings, sometimes having been given the most bewildering things to do. Borba, has little opportunity to portray any depth or fear as the lead character and mostly runs around like a pinball in a video game. It isn’t until he meets the main and final woman in his life that some of the scenes with Ms. Green play out with a sense of playful subtlety and wit and life (three words lacking the rest of the show.) Alas, when those moments come around – it’s too late. David McBean, as CLOWN #2 brings energy, but the jokes are flat.
The 39 Steps is labeled a farce; it was nominated for several Tony Awards in 2008 and won lighting and sound, so I can only imagine that this show can be good – a scrappy homage with a big budget coming on the heels of other like minded comedy homages. Although here, even the set and lighting design feels like a disarray of ideas lazily pieced together, influenced by someone who had a film noir movie on in the background.
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 StepsAdapted by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Jessica Kubzansky
La Mirada Theatre for the Performing Arts
Continues through Sunday February 12th.