'The 39 Steps': Fun with spies

In "The 39 Steps" (from left): Steve Pacek, Adam Altman, Genevieve Perrier, and Damon Bonetti.
In "The 39 Steps" (from left): Steve Pacek, Adam Altman, Genevieve Perrier, and Damon Bonetti. (Matthew J. Photography)
Posted: May 25, 2014

This season, two small Philadelphia theater companies staged Broadway-sized shows in their intimate venues. Both scored big hits. Ambler's Act 2 Playhouse produced a chilling rendition of Woman in Black in the fall, and Norristown's Theatre Horizon closes its season with a riotous production of The 39 Steps.

Patrick Barlow's 2005 adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film spoofs the original spy thriller about Richard Hannay (Damon Bonetti), a man pursued for murder and forced to expose an international espionage ring in order to prove his innocence. An easy topic for satire, as Mel Brooks first proved in his Hitchcock send-up, High Anxiety.

At Horizon, director Matt Pfeiffer plays every moment of Barlow's script for laughs: vaudeville takes on Irish step dancing, hanging flocks of birds, and a spot-on use of Samina Vieth's backstage design of visible sandbags and box seats that lets the cast wink their way through many jokes (the crew executes each set and costume change with lightning speed). Pfeiffer's tame take often recalls the Muppets, with bellyaching moments leading into wry humor that left one audience member exclaiming, "Aw, c'mon!"

Steve Pacek and Adam Altman's clowns portray more than a hundred roles, generating laughs from outlandish accents, Pacek's fascinating changes of expression, and Altman's ridiculous postures. Janus Stefanowicz's costumes lend additional humor with silly fezzes and garish smoking jackets. In multiple roles, Genevieve Perrier adds an admirable feminine foil to their boisterous clowning.

Bonetti gives a softened turn as the beleaguered Hannay, his harmless Canadian (redundancy, I know) becoming a put-upon everyman, and his tongue-in-cheek timing setting up unexpected laughs in each moment of comeuppance.

Beyond the humor, it's easy to understand the show's appeal; Barlow's script frames Hannay as unmarried, unmotivated, and world-weary at 37, about the age when nothing is happening and in most cases, won't unless it happens to us. Hannay escapes crooked cops, dodges bullets, and evades evil agents by running across fields and bridges (these moments lit to hilarious effect by Jessica Wallace).

In Barlow's comic take, Hannay traipses across Scotland and England. Theatre Horizon's production transports to a place of unfettered joy, each laugh fading to a permanent smile that even a day later, still lingers.


The 39 Steps

Through June 8 at Theatre Horizon, 401 DeKalb St., Norristown.

Tickets: $25-$35. Information: 610-283-2230 or www.theatrehorizon.org

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