Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy launched its seventh season with a bang on Wednesday night, with a fast and furious and very, very funny presentation of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps. English actor, comedian, and dramatist Patrick Barlow’s frisky 2005 farce is an inspired spoof of Scottish novelist John Buchan’s 1915 thriller and English film director Alfred Hitchcock’s riveting 1935 silver-screen adaptation of that nail-biting espionage story; but much to the HSN audience’s delight, Barlow takes considerable liberties with its source material — to poke fun at spy stories in general and The 39 Steps in particular.
Washington, DC actor Robbie Gay is a hoot as intrepid Canadian adventurer Richard Hannay, who meets beautiful and mysterious but very frightened Russian immigrant Annabella Schmidt (Raleigh actress Betsy Thompson Henderson) at a London theater, brings her back to his flat, and listens to her eyebrow-raising story about a sinister espionage outfit called the “39 steps” plotting to steal Great Britain’s most precious military secrets. Later that night, when Annabella is knifed to death, Hannay becomes the prime suspect in her murder.
Robbie Gay’s crisp comic characterization of innocent mustachioed man-on-the-run Richard Hannay is just one of the delights of this superlative Hot Summer Nights production. Betsy Henderson is hilarious as ill-fated would-be informer Annabella Schmidt and Margaret the flirtatious Scottish farmer’s wife who helps Hannay escape when her abusive much-older husband turns Hannay in for the reward. But it is as the feisty Pamela, an intelligent and fiercely independent woman whom Hannay meets on a train, that Henderson’s star shines brightest. Not believing Hannay’s far-fetched tale for one moment, Pamela drops the dime on him at the first opportunity — in an epic act of betrayal that she will soon regret.
But as good as Betsy Henderson and Robbie Gay are, it is Raleigh actors Jason Peck and Jesse R. Gephart who steal the show with their outrageous antics as they play dozens of incidental characters — innocents and villains alike — whom Hannay encounters during his desperate race to expose the perfidy of the 39 steps. Starting with their bit as the musical-hall novelty-act Mr. Memory and his cloying assistant, Peck and Gephart create dozens of sharply etched comic cameos and earn the biggest laughs of the evening with their antic impersonations of an eccentric bagpipe-playing Scottish innkeeper and his wife and two old pols who mistake Hannay for the keynote speaker at their rally. Peck’s silly walk on his heels and Gephart’s deliberately sotto voce introduction of Hannay provide two of the funniest moments that this reviewer has seen in many, many a day.
When it comes to cutting the fool, Jason Peck and Jesse Gephart are a dynamic duo who compare favorably to the classic comedy teams of Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. Their monkey business helped Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps earn a standing ovation from Hot Summer Nights’ opening-night audience.
The brisk and often ingenious cinematic staging New York City actor and director Richard Roland also deserves kudos; and set and lighting designer Chris Bernier, costume designer A. Christina Giannini, wig designer Patti DelSordo, properties manager Devra Thomas, and sound designer Will Mikes all do yeoman’s work in putting a spring in The 39 Steps. Don’t miss it!
SECOND OPINION: June 9th Raleigh, NC News & Observer review by Roy C. Dicks: http://www.newsobserver.com/2011/06/09/1260524/39-steps-is-guaranteed-remedy.html. (Note: To read Triangle Arts & Entertainment’s online version of the June 8th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2011/06/hilarity-meets-hitchcock-in-the-39-steps-at-hsn/.)
Hot Summer Nights at the Kennedy presents ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S THE 39 STEPS at 8 p.m. June 9-11, 3 p.m. June 12, 8 p.m. June 15-18, and 3 p.m. June 19 in the Sara Lynn and K.D. Kennedy, Jr. Theater in the Progress Energy Center for the Performing Arts, 2 E. South St., Raleigh, North Carolina 27601.
TICKETS: $22 ($18 students, seniors, and active-duty military personnel).
BOX OFFICE: 866/811-4111 or https://www.ovationtix.com/trs/cal/27655.
The Book: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Thirty-Nine_Steps (Wikipedia), http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/558 (e-text from Project Gutenberg) and http://www.archive.org/details/39_steps_0807_librivox (audio recording by Librivox.org).
The Film: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/92939/The-39-Steps/ (Turner Classic Movies), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_39_Steps_(1935_film) (Wikipedia), and http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0026029/ (Internet Movie Database).
The Play: http://www.love39steps.com/ (official website), http://www.39stepsny.com/ (Broadway website), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_39_Steps_(play) (Wikipedia), http://ibdb.com/show.php?ID=469214 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=show&title=The 39 Steps (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
Study Guide: http://www.39stepsny.com/Education Pack_2010.pdf (The Mousetrap Foundation).
The Playwright: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patrick_Barlow (Wikipedia), http://ibdb.com/person.php?id=469223 (Internet Broadway Database), and http://www.lortel.org/LLA_archive/index.cfm?search_by=people&first=Patrick&middle=&last=Barlow (Internet Off-Broadway Database).
Richard Roland: http://www.richardroland.com/ (official website).
Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.
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To read all of Robert W. McDowell’s Triangle Theater Review previews and reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click http://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/robert-w-mcdowell/.