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Review: Hilarious, cleverly staged “39 Steps” at Marietta’s Theatre in the Square

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The last major theme of Alfred Hitchcock’s cinema fully present in “The 39 Steps” is theater, writes Marian Keane in her excellent essay on the master director’s 1935 classic.

“Indeed, the film opens and closes with scenes set in theaters,” the film historian writes. “But by the last scene, that which separates the world of the stage from the world of the film — the invisible line between theater and reality, stage and audience — is destroyed. The stage, and the events that take place on it, become part of the reality of the film.”

Patrick Barlow’s theatrical version of the movie — itself an adaptation of John Buchan’s 1915 novel — takes these themes and twists them into the most hilarious, head-spinning knots. That’s about the only thing that’s clear in Theatre in the Square’s worthy mounting of Barlow’s comedy.

The production, under Clint Thornton’s crisp direction, is such a swirl to behold that you almost forget one of its most important themes: a night out at the theater is one of the best ways to escape the troubles of the world. Protagonist Richard Hannay (Jason MacDonald) frets early on about “elections and wars and rumors of wars” — nowadays you could throw in a recession — and yearns for something “pointless and trivial,” before declaring, “I know! I’ll go to the theater!”

Thank God I did that on Wednesday. Still shaking off the cabin fever of last week’s “snowpocalypse” and literally dodging a potential car crash on the drive to Marietta, I was dying for a laugh, and “The 39 Steps” delivered in ways you don’t often get from the theater.

Part of the magic of the show lies in the recasting of this typically Hitchcockian “wrong man” mystery with comedic overtones into a full-fledged comedy. But beyond that is the cast and crew. They have an almost too simple plot to work with: suave Hannay finds his boring life overturned by a chance encounter that leaves him wrongfully accused of murder, and only exposing a spy ring can clear his name.

The casting makes the difference. MacDonald is the only actor called upon to play only one character. Catherine Dyer must handle three roles: first as an enigmatic spy whose brief insinuation into Hannay’s life turns it upside down, then as a frustrated Scottish wife, and finally as a stranger whose trust he spends most of the play trying to win.

Then there are the two “clowns” (as titled in the program), played by Bryan Mercer and Scott Warren, whose quick changes as solo performers and dynamic duo provide “The 39 Steps” with much of its delirious confusion. By the end of the first act alone, it was impossible to keep track of their characters: farmer, wife, cop, salesman, milkman, maid … the mind boggles. In one ingenious scene, with both of them switching back and forth from cop to train-station clerk, the two spun next to each other in tight circles, switching hats on each spin to signify their new identities until one of them brandished both hats on his chest to insinuate that he was now a she.

I’d never seen Mercer perform before and marveled at the smooth clutch he employed in his character changes, from blueblood to blue-collar, from man to woman, from Brit to Scot. And I was only slightly prepared for Warren, a fixture on Atlanta’s comedic theater scene, whom I’d previously coughed up a lung over in the Dad’s Garage production of “Clash Titans Clash!” These two performers display a rare kind of comic timing and energy as they move seamlessly with and around each other, and they had the crowd at hello.

MacDonald is effectively dapper as Hannay. If anyone struggles, it’s Dyer, but I blame the script. Unable to focus on one character but not as elastically cast as the clowns, she’s challenged to find her rhythm, but does so as the chippy Pamela in the play’s final minutes.

To say that the clowns were the stars of the show would suffice if not for the stage on which they performed. The real magic of “The 39 Steps” is the whole set-up. Almost every set piece is designed as a movable and changeable device, often on rollers or curtain hooks, so that the grips (Ellen Gaydos and Tracy Thomas) could dart on and off to make the scene changes with minimal help from the actors.

The team effort also deserves recognition, beyond director Thornton: stage manager Julianna M. Lee, lighting designer Jessica Coale, technical director Seamus M. Bourne, props designer Lindsay Moore, projectionist Wes Parham and sound designer Thom Jenkins.

One example: Hannay and his frenemy Pamela (Dyer) check in to a hotel at the front desk, which (while they make their way “upstairs”) is then spun by the clerk into the room’s fireplace, lighting up to the audience’s cheers.

Everything about the production is that fluid, including identity — one of Hitchcock’s favorite themes. Hannay is at various times a bored bachelor, a suspected murderer, even a political candidate. Clearly Patrick Barlow uses cast and set to play with our notions of perception, just as Hitchcock wondered who we think we are.

The audience watching this “39 Steps” knows exactly who they are: fortunate souls. Go see it; the rumors of war will still be there when you’re done.

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