THEATER | Guthrie Theater's "39 Steps" is silly and sketchy

Sarah Agnew and Luverne Seifert in The 39 Steps. Photo by Michal Daniel, courtesy Guthrie Theater.

The greatest compliment I can pay The 39 Steps is to say that at no other production on the Guthrie Theater's McGuire Proscenium Stage have I felt such a reasonable chance of running into the cast having a beer at Grumpy's after the show. Directed by the Jungle Theater's Joel Sass, The 39 Steps has an appealingly loose feel that's more commonly encountered on stages Uptown than downtown.

Patrick Barlow's script is based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie that was in turn based on John Buchan's 1915 novel, but by no means should you go to The 39 Steps expecting a legitimate murder mystery. From the moment the curtain rises and cartoonishly arch syllables start pouring out of Robert O. Berdahl's mouth, it's clear that this is a piece about "characters" in a "plot" rather than characters in a plot. The production brings a parodic Jerry Zucker sensibility to a script that, if you just read the dialogue, would sound like a straightforward telling of the story. Imagine if The Naked Gun had been made using an authentic M Squad script, and you'll begin to understand the approach.

the 39 steps, presented through december 19 at the guthrie theater. for tickets ($24-$60) and information, see guthrietheater.org.

The staging is that of a play-within-a-play, but the cues that we're at the Guthrie watching a play about a play being produced by a much lower-budget theater company are all visual and implied rather than explicit and declared. The four cast members haul props around, huffing and puffing as they hurriedly change costumes onstage to fill out the couple dozen characters they portray. Berdahl remains constant as hero Richard Hannay, but Jim Lichtscheidl, Luverne Seifert, and Sarah Agnew switch characters constantly as they portray heroes and villains in Berdahl's quest to clear his name of murder and also prevent World War II. (You win some, you lose some.)

This approach essentially turns the show into an evening of sketch comedy—and as in any sketch-comedy show, some bits work better than others. The high point comes early on, with Agnew's portrayal of the lusty, consonant-choking German spy Annabella Schmidt; that bit gets the kind of mileage out of schtoop that Beaverdance got out of beaver jokes. The show steadily loses momentum, though, as it becomes clear that it's just going to be one sketch after another. The production outright stumbles in the second act, as Berdahl and Agnew are allowed to develop a little genuine chemistry and there are suggestions that we should consider caring about the plot. By contrast, the Sass-helmed Mystery of Irma Vep barrelled through the evening with an exciting sense of mounting absurdity, and that conviction made it a more successful show than 39 Steps.

The visual invention in Richard Hoover's set is fun, but it's nothing extraordinary. (If you think my standards for visual invention are unreasonably high, go see Jon Ferguson's Legend of Sleepy Hollow and then we can talk.) The performances are also fun, but these actors have such justifiably impervious confidence that after a cute early bit involving a lamppost, the seat-of-the-pants aspect is lost. I will say this, though: before I saw The 39 Steps, I thought I would go to my grave without ever again laughing at a funny Scottish accent.

This production is featured in the Daily Planet's complete guide to holiday theater. Throughout the holiday season, the guide will be updated with links to new Daily Planet reviews—so you'll know who's been naughty and who's been nice.
818 S. 2nd St.
Minneapolis, MN 55415
617-377-2224