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Interplayers stages ‘The 39 Steps,’ a comedy for spy fans

Actors Elisha Gunn, left, and Damon Mentzer star in Interplayers’ production of “The 39 Steps,” based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film.  (Jesse Tinsley)
Actors Elisha Gunn, left, and Damon Mentzer star in Interplayers’ production of “The 39 Steps,” based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film. (Jesse Tinsley)

Two points must be established right from the beginning:

• The stage version of “The 39 Steps” is based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock spy film.

• It is not a tension-packed thriller. More like a laugh-packed comedy.

“I call it James Bond meets ‘Masterpiece Theater’ meets Monty Python,” said William Marlowe, the director of the Interplayers Professional Theatre production.

It’s a surprise smash, in its third year in New York, its fourth year in London and now starting a three-week run at Interplayers. It’s a quick-change show in which four actors play all 150 roles.

“Put a hat on and take a hat off, and you have a new character,” said Marlowe.

Reed McColm, Interplayers artistic director, said this show is exceptionally good at utilizing the spontaneous nature of live theater.

“It can’t be a movie, a book or a TV show,” said McColm. “It needs to be seen onstage.”

Marlowe said that part of the fun is watching the actors assemble each “set.” They gather props and furniture and create settings that range from trains to Highland moors to the London Palladium.

The Interplayers version will put Damon Abdallah, Damon Mentzer, Jerry Sciarrio and Elisha Gunn through a workout as they play as many as 14 different characters – in one scene.

It sounds like a spoof of the Hitchcock movie, but it’s not. It’s a faithful telling of the story of “The 39 Steps,” using most of the original dialogue from the movie, which was surprisingly funny, racy and sophisticated.

The story follows the handsome hero Richard Hannay (played by Mentzer) as he becomes enmeshed in a shadowy organization’s conspiracy to steal British military secrets. There are thrilling chase scenes, harrowing train rides and narrow escapes.

There are also “gratifyingly groan-making visual, verbal and aural references to other Hitchcock films,” said Ben Brantley of the New York Times.

For instance, the “North by Northwest” cropdusters make an appearance – as deliberately cheap-looking shadow puppets.

Brantley called it “absurdly enjoyable,” “gleeful” and “a fast, frothy exercise in legerdemain.” The Times of London called it a “dizzy theatrical game played with wit and versatility.”

Through all of this, the play still apparently manages to have some Hitchcockian suspense.

“It’s a double-edged show,” said McColm. “Will Hannay survive? And will the actors get through the evening?”

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