The set of black industrial crates labeled “39” that served as the opening curtain to Clarence Brown Theatre’s production of “39 Steps” gave no hints as to what kind of night was going to ensue.
The play kicked off when those crates were lifted and a 1930s film noir countdown reel gave way to a classic inspector’s office scene, where a man called Richard Hanney, played by Brian Gligor, sat and introduced himself.
There was an initial awkwardness between Hanney and the audience as he gave his brief background in a monologue, but that awkwardness only lasted as long as it does in any real life first meeting. Hanney quickly established himself as a likable protagonist, and beckoned his audience to join him in attending a London West End show.
At the show, Hanney met the over-the-top German spy Annabella Schmidt, played by Katie Cunningham, and began a night that ultimately put him on a mission — and on the run.
Thus began Hanney’s whirlwind rush through pre-World War II Europe accompanied by the easy laughter of the audience.
If anything can be definitively said of the show by a non-theater professional, it was that the production was outright funny. The humor ranged from slapstick to sexual innuendo to dry wit made complete by terrific actors.
These actors deserve major credit. Brian Gligor portrayed a wildly likable and entertaining Hanney, and was even better in the presence of Katie Cunningham.
Throughout the show Cunningham was able to convincingly and hilariously play a German brunette, a Scottish redhead and a British blonde who each had their own unique chemistry with Hanney.
The two “clowns,” played by David Alley and David Kortemeier, made up the other 100 plus personalities on stage. Undergoing what seemed like an impossible amount of costume changes and mastering a huge number of accents, the duo seemed to do far more than the work of two people.
Of course, they maintained a self-deprecating humor about all of their work that took away any unwanted seriousness, pausing only once to catch their breaths after a particularly rapid change sequence.
The nature of the play was absolutely dependent on such changes and quick jumps from scene to scene due to the over 30 location changes. If the transitions had been slow or clumsy, it could have been a major source of complaint, but they were the opposite: seamless and inhumanly fast.
I found myself in awe not only of the actors’ physical quickness, but also of their mental agility in jumping into new settings with a new dialect and often in miming modes of transportation.
When the cast stepped out for the final time, the entire audience was on their feet. In spite of the handful of empty seats, the theater still applauded with the noise of a sold-out crowd.
The comments I heard from audience members on the way out were overwhelmingly positive, and I am inclined to agree. Whether you want a laugh, some espionage, or just to marvel at the skill of some really talented people, go see this show.