If someone asked me to describe “The 39 Steps,” I would be hard pressed to answer them. It’s like the setup for a joke: What do you get when you combine a Hitchcock-style mystery, a femme fatale (or three), the Scottish Highlands, in-your-face comedy and the breaking of the fourth wall?
At the beginning of the play, our dashing hero, Richard Hannay (Simon Schaitkin ’17), is contemplating what to do with his lonely Saturday evening. “Find something to do you bloody fool!” he berates himself, as so many enterprising Yale students do. “Something mindless and trivial. Something utterly pointless. Something — I know! A West End show!” And, as is so often the case, the beginning of everything is at the theater.
From the first gunshot at the evening spectacle, our hapless hero is drawn into a national conspiracy by the seductive and secretive Annabella Schmidt (Stefani Kuo ’17). After alerting Richard to the existence of a plot to steal British secrets, Annabella is fatally stabbed in the middle of the night. Framed for murder, the now-wanted Richard flees to Alt-na-Shellach (cue ominous thunder) in Scotland. Along the way he runs into a colorful cast of characters all played by the versatile duo of Eliza Hopkins ’17 and Charlie Bardey ’17. Stumbling into love, loss, friends and foes, Richard struggles to clear his name, save the country and get the girl. Saying anything more would spoil the surprise. (I’ll just leave you with the essential question: “What ARE the 39 Steps?”)
Though “The 39 Steps” is most certainly a comedy, that’s not to say it doesn’t have a few deep themes. Like any hero, Richard is forced to face a world that’s not always out to help him. Confronted by the mastermind of the conspiracy — shh! — Richard lauds the human qualities of loyalty, selflessness, sacrifice and love, only to be scoffed at because they are “not in his nature.” Like any dapper young man faced with sudden hardship, Richard must face the trials of character development in the face of imminent danger.
The Calhoun Cabaret is the perfect venue for a show like “The 39 Steps,” which requires lightning-fast costume and scenery changes. The minimalist space is used to full advantage: Several chairs and a rolling cart are arranged and rearranged to become a study, a car or an airplane. But the Cabaret truly shone at the beginning and end of the show, when it acted as a meta-theater presenting a show within a show. Hopkins and Bardey, wearing matching red cummerbunds and bowties, welcome viewers to the world of “The 39 Steps” with fanfare and perfectly-timed studio laughter (which is clearly unnecessary — the audience will be laughing along with their antics from their first “Thank you, thank you.”). While I thought the comedy was occasionally a little bang-the-frying pan-over-your-head thick, it was obvious that everyone loved their respective roles. Several times actors cracked up at each other’s’ jokes and physical gags, but somehow it worked — it’s hard not to laugh along with actors who are obviously enjoying themselves.
So if you find yourself with a free or lonely weekend, go see “The 39 Steps.” As Bardey ad-libbed during the performance, it’s “something you just won’t understand” unless you see it. Doesn’t mean you won’t enjoy it, though. Thank you, thank you.