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Theatre review: The 39 Steps at International City Theatre

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Photo by Tracey Roman
From left: Eric Wentz and Louis A. Lotorto in International City Theatre’s The 39 Steps

Continuing through this weekend, International City Theatre’s The 39 Steps blends Hitchcockian thrills with virtually nonstop physical comedy for an amusing yet suspenseful theatrical experience.

Adapted by Patrick Barlow and first staged on Broadway in 2008, the original story is from a 1915 novel by John Buchan that Alfred Hitchcock modified for his 1935 film of the same title, which was then adapted for the stage in 1996 by playwrights Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. Barlow’s version combines the suspense of the story with the inventive staging of the play using minimal props.

Four actors play all the roles– and there are quite a few! Richard Hannay (a well-cast Eric Wentz) finds himself under the gun when a mysterious European woman (Ashley Morton), whom he had met at a theatre, is found stabbed in his London apartment. From there, the play becomes one long chase as Hannay searches high and low for the true killer with the cops hot on his trail.

Playing the police and countless other combinations of characters of different ages and even genders are the formidably talented Bo Foxworth and Louis A. Lotorto (who has appeared in five previous productions of this play). Each scene requires all four actors to manipulate furniture, ladders, trunks, wheels and the like as they recite fast-paced, synchronized, witty lines and perform physical stunts that include: shaking as if on a moving train and car, climbing out pretend windows while being blown by winds and running, walking, jumping and crawling around various other obstacles, including each other.

The humor is compounded by the characters’ occasional tongue-in-cheek awareness of the absurdity of what they are attempting to pull off, such as when Hannay (Wentz) reminds the train conductor (Lotorto) to switch hats when becoming a policeman again.

Such awareness, and the fact that the set (designed by Fred Kinney) is basically a grand theatre stage– and the story begins and ends at the theatre– makes the whole play also work on a meta level, as if its story is fabricated in Hannay’s mind out of his admitted boredom, which helps explain its delightful absurdity.

In fact, the scenes are so delightful in their comic escapades that the actual plot (involving spies and secret plans) hardly seems to matter. Director Jamie Torcellini has neatly orchestrated the acting with props, sound and lighting to deliver a remarkable diversity of scenarios. Though pacing is rapid, it could at times be picked up. As the playwright has said of the acting, “the faster and tighter they play it, the more the story will work.” But perhaps anything faster would be superhuman.

Catching The 39 Steps this weekend will certainly entertain you. And if you are a Hitchcock buff, you will enjoy the send-up references to his films in addition to the suspense in this “psycho”tically fun show.

ICT’s The 39 Steps continues at the Beverly O’Neill Theatre, 330 East Seaside Way, through July 8, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 2pm. Tickets are $47 to $49. For tickets and information, call the ICT box office at (562) 436-4610 or visit ictlongbeach.org.

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Theatre review: The 39 Steps at International City Theatre