Seen on Broadway: By far the cleverest screen-to-stage adaptation I’ve seen of late is the British import The 39 Steps, a Roundabout Theatre Company production at the American Airlines Theatre. Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film classic, based on John Buchan’s novel of between-world-wars spy games, has several well-remembered setpieces, including an exciting pursuit on a train and the stiff-upper-lipped hero and heroine making an awkward escape while handcuffed together. The show replicates these, and the rest besides, with all of four performers playing two dozen or so roles and some prop furniture, cannily choreographed by director Maria Aitken. The rest is stage magic in affectionately satirical take on the story, fizzily written by Patrick Barlow. Setting the tone is Charles Edwards, in a pitch-perfect evocation of film star Robert Donat as accidental adventurer Richard Hannay; pivoting and pinwheeling around him are leading lady Jennifer Ferrin, in different guises, and an amazingly adept Cliff Saunders and Arnie Burton, listed in the Playbill as Man #1 and Man #2 but playing many other men, and a few women, besides.
Peter McKintosh’s unit set, hinting at a silver-screen London of 70 years ago and drenched in fog, is itself transformed into different environments, from the theatre where the action begins to a cross-islands chase, depicted via a hilariously illuminated scrim that reveals a Hitchcock cameo (the adaptation roams freely through the director’s canon). LD Kevin Adams does sterling work, funnily but convincingly suggesting numerous locales with pinpricks and outbursts of light, which McKintosh grounds with an array of period costume changes—the hat-switching gag between Saunders and Burton, as they play six different characters in a matter of seconds, is terrific comic theatre. Mic Pool accents the bits with a splendid, enveloping sound design. The breakneck pace achieved in Act I loses steam during the intermission, suggesting that the piece—a long-running hit abroad—might have been further tightened and the interval eliminated. Not that the actors didn’t earn a rest. But too much of a good thing is still a good thing, and The 39 Steps highly recommended for its spoof stagecraft.
Whatever momentum is achieved by the Manhattan Theatre Club’s revival of William Inge’s Come Back, Little Sheba, at the Biltmore Theatre, is largely shouldered by S. Epatha Merkerson, in a poignant performance. Inge was himself picking up steam as a preeminent playwright of 1950s-era repression, and outside of the central character of Lola, who is struggling to maintain her illusions and her fraying alcoholic husband (Kevin Anderson, who is aging into Karl Malden but is not quite as stolid yet as the veteran actor), Little Sheba is today more of archival than audience interest. As a vehicle for the Law and Order star, however, it does nicely, and I admired her restraint and deceleration in the lead, in a part that Shirley Booth won a Tony and an Oscar for through sheer unbridled nagging.
Michael Pressman’s direction is workmanlike. The drab period atmosphere of an ordinary Midwestern city is effectively but not harshly conveyed by costume designer Jennifer Von Mayrhauser, LD Jane Cox, and sound designer Obadiah Eaves; there is fleeting beauty here, amidst so much disappointment. (The undraped physique of Brian J. Smith, as the secret boyfriend of boarder Zoe Kazan, and chit-chat about muscle magazines are not-so-subtle clues as to what the playwright was holding back in that era.) James Noone’s tiered set, with its rooms half-open for inspection, prying, and overheard conversation, is a good metaphor for slow suffocation—and it really does look brighter and cleaner when Lola sets her mind to housekeeping, a sign that all is not lost in Inge’s emotionally bereft universe.
Seen at BAM: Speaking of entrapment…the National Theatre production of Samuel Beckett’s Happy Days, which is playing at the Brooklyn Academy of Music through Feb. 2, is a dual triumph for set designer Tom Pye, who has made a post-apocalyptic mess of the stage, and star Fiona Shaw, who spends the entire show waist- and neck-deep in it. The environment for Beckett’s absurdist masterwork is normally a modest hill, but the bombed-out concept behind Deborah Warner’s staging fills the entire playing space of the Harvey Theater with concrete, rocks, and dirt, which, backed by an equally desolate painting, blends in seamlessly with the distressed playhouse. It’s a setting that a less formidable performer would be overwhelmed by. But Shaw, working once more in tandem with Warner after their exceptional Medea in 2002, is not so easily intimidated. She is a most winsome Winnie, who makes the best of her predicament, spritzing jokes and chatter from her confinement, and playing off her mostly mute husband Willie (Tim Potter) like a sitcom second banana. This is a funnier Happy Days than we are used to, and a sexier one, as Shaw is quite fetching in what we can see of the black cocktail dress that costume consultant Luca Costiglioli has concocted for her. But a nameless danger is ever-present—not for nothing does Winnie have a handgun in her handbag—reinforced by a shocking pyro effect that erupts in Act I.
By the second act, Winnie is up to her neck in the set, and Shaw looks mighty uncomfortable—it’s acting, but the character’s distress is acutely felt, as alarm buzzers timed for maximum fear factoring by sound designer Christopher Shutt go off and Jean Kalman’s lighting takes on a distinct chill. (There is also an ominous underscore to contend with, provided by Mel Mercier.) The grace note of hope the play ends on is hard-earned, and genuinely cathartic, as if we have just watched a badly broken marriage try to reconstitute itself, an interpretation I saw through the rubbish that traps its heroine. Whatever—what is abundantly clear is that performer, director, and designer have come up with a Happy Days that is truly smiling through.—Robert Cashill
The 39 Steps
Scenery: Huntington Theatre Company and Hudson Scenic Studios, Inc.
Lighting: PRG Lighting
Audio: Sound Associates
Come Back, Little Sheba
Scenery: Showman Fabricators
Lighting: PRG Lighting
Audio: Masque Sound
The National Theatre of Great Britain workshops