By Charles Brousse
Ever since Patrick Barlow unleashed his farcical version of The 39 Steps in 2005, the show has made box offices hum at theaters large and small around the globe. In addition to delighting audiences, it has also garnered critical accolades that include Broadway Tony Awards and London’s prestigious 2007 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. No doubt a strong case can be made that The 39 Steps and Michael Frayn’s antic Noises Off represent the gold standard of modern comic dramaturgy.
With such a glowing record, you might conclude that Barlow’s play would be an easy choice for ending Ross Valley Players’ (RVP) 2016-2017 season—a decision that is strategically important because it sets the tone for selling subscriptions for the coming year. But farce, particularly English farce, is a risky proposition. It requires a combination of skills by the performers and director that few American theaters can muster. Luckily, to a degree that is remarkable for a community theater, RVP delivers in every area.
The 39 Steps (a fictitious code phrase for British intelligence operations in the early days of World War I) began life as a 1915 spy novel by the then-popular Scottish writer John Buchan. It was one of a series of books that Buchan called “shockers” because they pushed readers to the edge of credulity by combining realism with unexpected fantasy. Gradually, as the story was retold in numerous adaptations by other writers for stage, radio and film (Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 movie is the most famous of these), the realistic element gave way to magic and humor, until we now have the wildly popular, played-for-laughs pastiche by Patrick Barlow that debuted in London in 2005 and then went on to acclaim on Broadway and at theaters throughout the U.S.
Unlike the modern era’s most famous spy-chaser James Bond, who revels in being an amoral sybarite, Buchan’s hero, Richard Hannay, is a self-sacrificing patriot (Scottish, of course), whose only wish is to serve “God and Country” when he accidentally discovers an enemy plot to expose the British Secret Service. Ross Valley Players has found the perfect actor to fill that role in lanky, clean-cut Michael Monagle. A model of gentlemanly decorum when we first meet him, he quickly morphs into an agile man on the run as he pursues a nefarious foreign spy ring, while simultaneously dodging police who mistakenly want him for a murder he didn’t commit. Robyn Grahn is utterly credible as the three attractive women (not present in Buchan’s novel) who enter his life; especially Pamela, who is as innocent in the ways of the world as he is.
Although Richard and Pamela generate plenty of laughs when they are forced into an unwanted intimacy while trying to escape the criminals and police while handcuffed together, the show’s essential comedic drive comes from the antics of Sean Garahan and Andre Amarotico—designated in the program simply as Clown #1 and Clown #2—who open the evening with a music hall routine and then engage in a series of lightning character changes (allegedly around 150 in total) that is beyond any I’ve witnessed in my years of reviewing. As if that’s not enough, when they aren’t shifting accents, donning wigs, dresses and whatever else it takes to transform their identity, they morph into stagehands moving props and scenery.
All of this depends on exact timing and blocking, the province of RVP’s director, Adrian Elfenbaum, who also adds many creative touches to the staging.
It may seem like hyperbole to call the result a triumph, but that’s what it is.
NOW PLAYING: The 39 Steps runs through August 20 at the Ross Valley Players’ Barn Theatre, Marin Art & Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross; 415/456-9555; rossvalleyplayers.com.