Regional Reviews: Chicago
The 39 Steps
In the program notes, director Johanna McKenzie Miller credits Buchan and Hitchcock, jointly, with the genesis of the modern spy thriller. Moreover, Miller refers to the production itself as "spy craft inspired." This seems to refer exclusively to the admittedly impressive scenic design by Angela Weber Miller. The tricks of the trade are largely confined to revolving set pieces and comically old-fashioned levers, with little attention to spare for the plot. Given that said plot is certainly thin, the emphasis on staging and sight gags is understandable, except for the fact that the commitment to the bits detracts from the considerable abilities of the cast.
That said, the visuals are undeniably impressive. Weber Miller bases the set on a wood-paneled, aggressively British interior. Upstage, a second quasi-proscenium frames a set of doors, suggesting a foyer and creating onstage "wings" that facilitate rapid exits for the frequent costume changes the "Clowns" must make. Downstage right and left are large, curved cabinets with double doors that swing open to accommodate set pieces that roll in and out, topped by arched, multi-paned windows that double as projection screens. Downstage further still, each side has a full-sized door that accommodates the many entrances and exits dear to farce.
Added to this are a downstage revolve that adds comedic life to the chase scenes, as well as a platform about six feet square that raises perhaps eight inches above the level of the stage. This last element exemplifies the "bridge too far" vibe that occasionally undermines the show.
We first see this after a long gag in which one of the Clowns, at this point in the guise of an elderly Scotsman, wheels out a gear and lever straight out of Chaplin's Modern Times and pulls it to raise a dais for a political meeting. This leads to both Clowns having an exaggerated degree of difficulty mounting and dismounting the dais. In the moment, this read as ill-advisedly straining for comedy above and beyond what the very capable actors were doing.
But the lever (and the dais) return at the play's climax, when the second time the lever is pulled by the leading lady at the leading man's behest, it opens a trapdoor in the stage, rather than lowering the dais. The more generous interpretation for the earlier, elongated sight gag is that it represents a misdirect, so that the trapdoor is a surprise. If this is the intention, though, it's far too long between gags for this to land.
In the same vein, at the performance I attended, one of the certainly ingenious rolling set pieces had a malfunction serious enough that the performance was temporarily halted. Shortly after this stumble, one of the two projectors failed, leaving half the stage without the intended visual narration. Although technical failures certainly can and do happen under any circumstances, it does not seem to be a stretch to attribute these hitches to a production determined to impress with technical sophistication, even when said focus interferes with the performance.
Even without the glitch, Anthony Churchill's projection design is something of a mixed bag. The color palette seems drawn from the pages of comic books, and the mellow wood of the set is not always well-suited as a substrate. Some scenes, including the initial Mr. Memory are stunning, but the animated purple and gold countryside behind the train doesn't land quite as well, and the wink and nod to North by Northwest during one of the chase scenes is striking on its own, but doesn't quite fit with the style and overall vibe of the rest of the projection visuals.
In the unambiguous plus column, Rachel Boylan's costumes, particularly for the Clowns, are a marvel. Boylan demonstrates a steady hand and a level head extremely well-suited to deciding where to expend energy on an elaborate wig, cape, and virtual body curtain of pearls for one of the Clowns, and when to invite the audience to roar along at the transparent truth that one actor is playing both a faux cop and a long-suffering Scottish innkeeper in the same scene, courtesy of a nightshirt hastily thrown over a three-piece suit. Similarly, Ray Nardelli's sound design and the lighting design by Lee Fiskness are tight and expertly executed, and both are actor forward, supporting the comedic performances, rather than trying to outdo them.
As talented as all the cast members clearly are, it also seems obvious that they are well supported by other members of the production team. Charlie Baker and Sammi Grant seem clearly to deserve credit for intimacy/violence/comedic movement direction and dialect consultation, respectively.
It seems appropriate to speak of the cast almost as a body. Gavin Lee is certainly a standout for both physical comedy and flawless delivery of dialogue. But from the play's first moments, Miller signals that all the performances are utterly interdependent, as the two Clowns (Zuhdi Boueri and Tom DeTrinis) swap props in and out of Lee's hands as he introduces himself and sets up the story's conceit.
Boueri and DeTrinis are individually and in collaboration so skilled and so funny that one resents the moments when over-devotion to the mechanical visuals prevents the audience from paying their performances the attention they deserve.
As Annabella/Margaret/Pamela, Caitlin Gallogly exhibits range that is surprising in such a broad farce and in a production that neglects this set of characters the most. Her abilities are, perhaps, best on display as Pamela, the rural Scots farm wife, who seems quite willing to be lured away from her dull life by a man on the run. This is not to say that she is not charming as Pamela, the eleventh-hour love interest, but rather to note that the production doesn't make full use of what she has to offer.
The 39 Steps runs through August 13, 2023, at Drury Lane Theatre, 100 Drury Lane, Oakbrook Terrace IL. For tickets and information, please visit DruryLaneTheatre.com or call 630-530-0111.