Review: Hitchcock meets Python, brilliantly

Peter Fitzgerald, left, and Bruce Church comprise half the cast in The New England Repertory Company's production of "The 39 Steps," onstage through April 15 at the MMAS Black Box Theater, 377 North Main St., Mansfield. (Submitted photo)

MANSFIELD - When a playwright calls characters something basic like "Man 1" and "Man 2," they might seem inconsequential or disposable in the plot.

To assume that for two of the four characters listed in the comedy-drama-murder mystery "The 39 Steps" would be a dreadful mistake. And to automatically deduce that actors Bruce Church (Man 1) and Peter Fitzgerald (Man 2) must be bit players based on their character names would be short-sighted.

The production, on stage through April 15 at the Black Box Theatre, 377 North Main St., relies heavily on the their talents. Their cast names belie the depth of their talent and the number of hats they wear - literally - in the show. They are Englishmen. They are Scotsmen. They are women. They work for the railroad. They work for Scotland Yard. They are older. They are younger.

Bottom line? They are absolutely brilliant.

Theirs is the talent driving this zany whodunit popularized by Alfred Hitchcock in film. Set in Britain in the 1930s, the story is not easily characterized. In fact, it's been described as Hitchcock meets Monty Python, and this is no exaggeration. Tracing the misadventures of Englishman Richard Hannay (played by Brian Dunham) who has been framed for murder and flees to Scotland to try and clear his name, "The 39 Steps" stage adaptation by Patrick Barlow is serious for a few seconds then dissolves into comedy.

Much of the action is at the hands of Man 1 and Man 2, who make no secret of their multiple roles. In one particularly funny scene, Hannay is on the train to Scotland and Church and Fitzgerald switch so rapidly between characters - Church by switching a hat from front to back and Fitzgerald by raising his voice a few octaves and donning a floral headpiece - that it's dizzying. And hysterical.

Director Beth Goldman capitalizes on the talents of her cast - which has Maggie Nichols in several female roles, including the murder victim - with other Python-esque touches. When the bobbies (police) are searching the moors for Hannay, for example, Church and Fitzgerald pace the stage with the toy leashes that bob on the end although no dog is attached. The police then call in a department plane to help in the search and a model-sized World War I-style plane zip lines across the stage.

Goldman clearly has a sense of humor and appreciates slapstick, which is a must for appreciating this production. The actors are having a ball and the audience feels as if they've been invited to be part of their revelry.

In addition to Church and Fitzgerald's amazing performances, the show draws out multiple personalities in Nichols. She plays a German spy, a Scottish lass with an overbearing husband, and Hannay's partner in crime. In each, she is entertaining and fun to watch. Dunham is also well cast and his gymnastics when slithering out from beneath a corpse or maneuvering while handcuffed to a woman are genuinely funny.

"The 39 Steps" is such a combination of talents, characters and genres that it's hard to imagine it would not appeal to everyone, even those like myself who are not ardent Python fans. The humor is infectious and the players talented. Tickets are available by calling 508-339-2822 or going to www.mmas.org.

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