It's always a daunting experience walking into a local theater for the first time. Sure, you may have heard wonderful things about it from people who've worked there or posted their opinions on social media. But considering local theater types generally gush enthusiastically about everything in their hardworking, insular community, it's impossible to get a good read until you take a seat and see it with your own orbs.
Enter Stage Door Repertory Theatre, which opened in October 2011 in an industrial park in the part of Anaheim that is neither city nor hills—it's that ungainly section north of the 91 freeway and east of the 57. Its founder, Nick Charles, has spent some 40 years in Southern California theater, and his programming tastes are hardly cutting-edge. Plays such as The Woman In Black, A Flea In Her Ear, Noises Off and The Foreigner are all fine entertainments, but they're also often produced.
The 39 Steps seemed enticing, though. Who wouldn't want to see a theatrical version of the book that inspired one of Alfred Hitchcock's early masterpieces?
However, while Patrick Barlow's 2005 adaptation claims it's based on the 1915 book by John Buchan, this is actually a nearly word-for-word re-imagining of Hitchcock's 1935 film—but done in a way that would flabbergast the portly and perverse Hitchcock. It's a four-character farce in which actors engage in the kind of quick-change techniques that Charles Ludlam immortalized in plays such as The Mystery of Irma Vepp. The actors also supply their own sound effects (such as the opening and closing of train doors) and visual effects; when called to crawl through a window, they basically pick up a window frame resting on the ground and step through it.
It's intentionally silly and intentionally low-budget. The so-called fourth wall is irrelevant, and even simple mistakes, such as a fire that fails to ignite on cue, are part of the wackiness.
It's also highly dangerous theater. Play it too straight, and you risk alienating the most important factor in a show such as this: the audience's desire to go along for the ride. Play it too loose, and it just looks sloppy.
Fortunately, Charles' production nails it, for the most part. His four-person cast is absolutely committed to the lunacy. Kevin Booth and David Sakach, the two actors called on to portray everything from Scottish hoteliers and English bobbies to German spies and vaudevillians, often transforming in seconds, do so with envious energy and craft. Aurora Long, who also plays multiple characters, offers the perfect blend of sexy sinuousness, uptight English priggishness and lovestruck deer-in-the-headlights emotion.
And in Alastair James Murden, Charles has the ideal quarterback. Murden, who is part of the Maverick Theater's Improv Shmimprov group, resembles Jim Carrey in both his face and his angular frame. More important, he has an impeccable sense of timing and possesses the kind of theatrical vision that is more gift than technique: the ability not only to remain unflustered by the chaos, intentional or otherwise, surrounding him, but also to draw on it to help fuel his performance. The football analogy truly applies, as he is called on to read his fellow actors and the situation as though a blitzing defense, adjusting his actions accordingly.
Pace is critical for a play such as this, and though it lags in the second act during a couple of long scenes in which the bits that make this such an entertaining play aren't called for, Charles manages it well. A professional production, such as the one that ran for two years on Broadway, probably had an army backstage helping with props and costumes. For a small company such as this one to pull it off so well with such few resources is a great accomplishment indeed.
And Charles and company push the ridiculousness even further by dropping numerous Hitchcock references throughout the play—from the shower scene in Psycho to the aerial chase in North By Northwest. Though entirely unnecessary, they're another layer of intentionally heavy-fisted gags that keep the laughs coming.
The plot is the same as the film's: A debonair English gentleman, bored with his life, decides to engage in a useless diversion—a night at the theater. He quickly gets swept up in pre-World War II espionage in the person of a sexy German double agent and, chased by the authorities on suspicion of murder, traipses across the Scottish countryside in an attempt to uncover the secret behind a Nazi plot to disable Britain's air defenses, a shadowy plan called the 39 Steps.
But, really, plot, characterization and all the other niceties of a well-made play are irrelevant in a production such as this. The focus is on pure entertainment, and the success of this hilarious, if occasionally bumpy, production shows that given a choice between a poor production of a serious, important drama and a fine production of a deliriously brain-dead comedy, the latter always trumps.
So, Stage Door Repertory Theatre, while it's a quite belated one, welcome to OC theater.
Joel Beers has written about theater and other stuff for this infernal rag since its very first issue in, when was that again???