’39 Steps’ a must-see comical romp

Posted Sept. 13, 2010, at 6:22 p.m.

The hapless yet occasionally brilliant Richard Hannay finds himself in a rather large pickle, as the twisting, madcap plot of “The 39 Steps” unfolds. The Penobscot Theatre Company’s season-opening production that kicked off last weekend and continues for two more weeks is a must-see comical romp. It’s a hilariously fun but flawed send-up of spy thrillers, and a loving homage to Alfred Hitchcock, on whose film of the same name the play is based.

Hannay, played by New York actor Paul Jason Green, is a middle-class London twit. He becomes unwittingly embroiled in a mystery that finds him a wanted man, on the run from both Scotland Yard and a bumbling goon squad, in the employ of the mysterious Professor Jordan. A beautiful German spy, a British bombshell and a corn-fed Scottish lass, all played by Julie Leedes, appear along the way to both help and hamper his efforts to clear his name and solve the mystery.

If there’s a star of the show, it is Dominick Varney’s rubbery, ridiculous facial and bodily contortions. Varney, who turns in yet another stellar PTC performance, plays more than 45 characters over the course of the show, grinning madly at one moment, grimacing and growling the next. It is a testament to his multitude of skills that the second Varney appears onstage one’s eyes are drawn to his face, a marvel of elasticity and artful goofiness. When he and fellow quick-change, multicharacter actor Scott R.C. Levy are onstage together, especially as one of several married couples, it’s screamingly funny.

Varney and Levy are the heart and soul of the show, and the engine that drives the entire thing along. High-pitched “Monty Python”-esque guy-in-a-dress female characters are followed by turns as doddering old men, insane Germans and idiotic lingerie salesmen. Both actors jump into their myriad characters with seamless ease, donning a hat or coat in a matter of seconds to switch among three different individuals. They’re a formidable comedic team.

The first act of “The 39 Steps” starts off with Hannay addressing the audience, before launching almost immediately into the zigzagging story. Green’s Hannay is affable but a bit selfish, a straight man who nevertheless understands the absurdity of the situation he’s in — and sometimes displays a kind of cunning that departs from his otherwise Everyman characteristics. Green and Leedes carry off their characters convincingly, though their British accents tend to fade in and out of believability.

By the middle of the second act, however, the zip and calculated lunacy that powered the show along begin to fade. The overly draggy scenes between Green and Leedes near the end deflate the energy, which Levy and Varney must pump back up in the last 15 minutes of the show. It ends on a note that satisfyingly resolves the mystery, but one can’t help but feel that what made the show so fun and engaging in the first act has started to fade by the end of the second.

The set and costumes, designed by Lex Liang, are a wonderful combination of spare simplicity and 1930s prewar glamour. Leedes is outfitted in a variety of sexy or cute dresses, and Hannay sports a dandy suit for the entire show — while Levy and Varney pop in and out of smoking jackets, tuxedos, trench coats and high heels. Special credit must be given to the backstage crew, who kept the vitally important props and costumes in the right place at the right time, at all times.

Despite the flaws in pacing near the end, “The 39 Steps” is a rip-roaring good time, combining theater, cinema and gut-busting silliness into one highly enjoyable whole.

“The 39 Steps” will be performed again Sept 16-19 and Sept. 23-26 at the Bangor Opera House. Tickets are $20-$35; for information, visit www.penobscottheatre.org.

Penobscot Theatre also will kick off a new humanities series this year, which includes film screenings of movies related to the current production. The first event in the series will be held at 2 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 18. The original film version of “The 39 Steps” directed by Alfred Hitchcock will be screened with a post-screening discussion about Hitchcock led by University of Maine English professor Jeff Evans. This event is free and open to the public.

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