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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The 39 Steps

With only the teensiest fraction of the "Young Frankenstein" budget, this British import -- an adaptation of the classic 1935 Alfred Hitchcock film with Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll -- manages to re-create the entire espionage film, replete with varying locales, a complex chase through Scotland, and multitudinous characters, all with a mere four actors and minimalist sets.

The spare but eminently satisfying Olivier Award-winning production has been imported from London (where it is still running) by the enterprising Roundabout Theatre Company.

In the Donat role of Richard Hannay -- a reluctant investigator inadvertently caught up in intrigue with a spy ring, after he's accused of murdering the mysterious damsel in distress to whom he's given shelter -- Charles Edwards gives a dapper characterization. The rest of the cast -- all Americans -- perform with surprising authenticity; they include Jennifer Ferris as a prototypical 1930s heroine, and a couple of other female roles. But most astonishing are Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders, playing dozens of other roles, switching costumes and accents (and occasionally genders) with consummate ease.

Actress Maria Aitken directs with a sharp satirical eye that matches the work's conceit.

In the process, the original property -- originally a novel by John Buchan -- is gently spoofed, but not (as some purists have sniffed) denigrated. Playwright Patrick Barlow (working from an original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon) pays homage to Hitchcock movies, including a cameo appearance by the master, courtesy of a cardboard cutout. The piece successfully walks the line between a ripping espionage tale and a droll satire.

Familiarity with the original book and film (it was remade in 1959 and 1978) is not mandatory. Safely recommendable to teens and up. (American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St.; (212) 719-1300; www.roundabouttheatre.org) Print this post

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