It would be hard not to have a good time at The 39 Steps, the inspired spoof by Patrick Barlow of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock comedy thriller, based on a novel by John Buchan. Elements of both the movie and the book are worked into the stage adaptation, which is getting a fun but uneven performance by Jobsite Theater at the Shimberg Playhouse.
The show's chief asset is Matt Lunsford, who plays Richard Hannay, an innocent man on the run, ensnared in a complex plot of murder and espionage that takes him to the train between London and Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands. Cleverly, the play begins with a bored Hannay yearning for "something utterly pointless," and so of course he ends up at the theater, his matinee idol jaw firmly clenched on ever-present pipe.
Lunsford has a knack for physical comedy that nicely plays off his stiff-upper-lip character, scrambling around the train with police in pursuit. His pretzel-like extrication from beneath the corpse of a woman in a red leather armchair is a delightful piece of pantomime.
There is excellent chemistry between Lunsford and Amy E. Gray, who gives a witty performance in multiple roles as the women with whom Hannay gets involved, including a mysterious femme fatale in black and a Scottish country girl. Gray has exactly the right air of sexy, amused detachment as Pamela, the classic Hitchcock blond, who is handcuffed to the hero when they flee across the moors.
At first I enjoyed the antics of Spencer Meyers and Brian Shea, billed as Clown 1 and Clown 2. They have a field day quick changing from character to character, some of them quite major, like the music hall Mr. Memory (Meyers) and the nefarious Professor Jordan (Shea), others swiftly flashing by, like the newsboy, constable and conductor on the train. In all, the two actors portray more than 100 characters, often to hilarious effect, but they tend to go over the top to the point that all the wild and crazy tomfoolery becomes self indulgent.
My impression on opening night was that Meyers and Shea didn't receive much direction, but were just given their heads and allowed to run with the material because they're funny guys. With all the different British accents they use, making out the words is a problem in Shimberg's nonexistent acoustics. Too often, clarity of speech is sacrificed to high energy and loudness.
Director Katrina Stevenson has not been very imaginative in her staging. A car assembled from steamer trunks and a stool is about as resourceful as things get. A ridiculously large map of Scotland is a good gag, but Stevenson's costume design is utilitarian when it might have been fanciful. The main problem is that the show just doesn't move quickly enough. It feels heavy when it should be light on its feet.
Brian Smallheer's dull, dark scenic and lighting design is surprisingly unambitious for a theatrical concoction so rich with possibilities. One highlight is the sound design (by David M. Jenkins), an assemblage of Bernard Herrmann quotes (the scary strings from Psycho), police sirens, bleating sheep and a masterful segue from housekeeper's scream to train whistle.
Jobsite deserves credit for taking on such a hot commercial property as The 39 Steps, but it's disappointing that the production is so earthbound. It continues through Feb. 5 at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, Tampa. Run time: 2 hours, including intermission. 8 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday. $24.50. (813) 229-7827; strazcenter.org.
John Fleming can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8716.