Spies, Intrigue, Slapstick: 39 Steps at Kalamazoo Civic

A late film critic once said of the even later director Alfred Hitchcock’s work that, in it, “nothing is ever taken quite seriously.” That’s certainly true. You might remember the episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents entitled “Lamb To The Slaughter,” in which the titular meat, having been used as a murder weapon, is cooked and served to some clueless cops. That’s awful, yes, but it’s also funny.

The play 39 Steps, based heavily on Hitchcock’s 1935 film The 39 Steps(itself somewhat loosely based on a 1915 novel of the same name), dials down the director’s customary suspense and cranks up the humor. The result is a play crammed with humor, much of it slapstick; it can be seen at Kalamazoo’s Civic Theatre, March 8-17.

Initially, director Kevin Dodd said he found the play “really ridiculous, really far out. Then I saw the movie.” The humor was there, too, intentionally (and sometimes not). Lines he’d found beyond absurd in the play turned out to have been lifted word from word from the film. “Seeing the way the play transformed the movie made it hilarious to me on a different level.”

He describes the play as an homage more than a spoof, although it’s that, too; he sees in it a real reverence for Hitchock’s work, and an embrace of the humor that’s never far from the surface (in the movie, that is; in the play, it’s all over the surface). “It’s an experiment, of sorts,” Dodd said. “What if you took the movie and pushed everything further? Look at the opening scene. It takes place in a music hall in London. How far is that from vaudeville?”

The original plot was already bonkers: a man named Richard Hannay saves the life of what he thinks is a nanny, only to discover that there’s no baby in her pram. He finds himself intrigued. Together, they take in a show by Mr. Memory, a man capable of astonishing feats of memory. Soon, the woman reveals herself to be a British Intelligence worker; a spy, in other words. She’s on the tail of a group called The Thirty-Nine Steps, which is led by a man missing a finger…intrigue piles upon intrigue, danger upon danger, dizzyingly.

The play tells that story, more or less. The story isn’t incidental: there’s a nostalgic quality to Hitchcock and to the early 20th century itself, a world that’s long since passed over the horizon. But more than anything, the humor is the play’s reason for being.

Hitchcock fans will be catered to, with nods to everything from the shower scene in Psycho to the scene from North by Northwest in which Cary Grant runs from a plane. But Dodd said that a familiarity with Hitchcock’s work isn’t necessary. “If you don’t know anything about Hitchcock, you’ll have a good time,” he said. “If you do, you’ll have a good time, too.”

Lovers of theater are quick to point out the power of the art form, from its ability to dramatize the struggles of the human heart to the important themes it artfully, or at least tendentiously, tackles. But most of us go to the theater because we want to enjoy ourselves. 39 Stepsallows us to do that, whether we’re four or 90.

“There’s an electricity that happens with a live performance,” Dodd said. “It’s interactive. There’s an exchange that happens. That’s what we’re here for.” Having felt the loss of that exchange during the pandemic, he’s thrilled to be working, along with others, to help bring it back.

The 39 Steps
Kalamazoo Civic Theatre
March 8-17


Photos Courtesy of Deborah Mitchell.