With all the critical drooling over the oeuvre of Alfred Hitchcock, it’s nice to know that the master of suspense can still be played for laughs. Mel Brooks left no sight gag unturned in spoofing Hitchcock’s films in his 1977 romp “High Anxiety.” Neither does Patrick Barlow in his stage adaptation of Sir Alfred’s 1935 spy flick “The 39 Steps.” Four years after being produced at La Jolla Playhouse, The 39 Steps is back, this time at Lamb’s Players Theatre under the direction of Deborah Gilmour Smyth. If you haven’t seen the play before, know that any resemblance in tone to the played-straight 1935 movie is strictly accidental. The 39 Steps is a quick-change send-up played by a cast of only four that’s reliant upon unrestrained physical comedy, unashamedly obvious allusions (visual, verbal and musical) to other Hitchcock films and a vaudevillian devil-may-care.
It’s not the start-to-finish howl it aspires to be. Like the “Airplane” or “Naked Gun” films, The 39 Steps throws so much at you there are bound to be hits and misses. The man-on-the-run espionage story, meanwhile, never stands a chance against the antics of the inexhaustible ensemble. David S. Humphrey is an elastic-limbed Richard Hannay, the wrongly accused hero, while Kelsey Venter tackles three roles, including the blonde Pamela who helps Richard clear his name. But three parts seems like child’s play compared to the load Robert Smyth (Lamb’s artistic director) and Jesse Abeel carry. Between the two of them they portray policemen, innkeepers, innkeepers’ wives, foreign spies -- even, in Abeel’s case, the moss, peat and shrubs of a Scottish bog. Smyth’s and Abeel’s lightning-fast change of costumes and characters are more fun than the Hitchcock bits, which are easy snippets of parody.
Humphrey and Venter’s finest moment arrives in Act 2, when they are handcuffed together. They pull off awkward twists, turns and grimaces that would make Lucy and Desi, who had at this shtick on TV eons ago, proud.
Truly impressive is how Lamb’s stages a man-on-the-run story with nothing more than props and body language. But after managing Around the World in 80 Days, as the theater did last year, the British Isles must have felt like a breather.
David L. Coddon is theater critic for San Diego CityBeat