If you’ve never seen three grown men get 180 people laughing themselves silly over a door frame, you obviously haven’t seen “The 39 Steps” — yet. The satirical melodrama that manages to poke fun at Sherlock Holmes, Alfred Hitchcock and Monty Python at the same time just opened at Lakewood Playhouse, and the production (directed by John Munn) deserves every sold-out house it’s getting. Because, while the plot is minimal and emotional depth negligible, the cast of four uses every prop gag in the book and more to keep the silliness front and center, the pace swift and the jokes as over-the-top as they deserve.
Going into “The 39 Steps,” though, it helps to understand the play’s backstory. It’s based on a detective adventure novel of 1915 by Scottish author John Buchan, which was then made into a 1935 suspense film by Alfred Hitchcock. Playwrights Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble (with later adaptation by Patrick Barlow) then gave the whole thing a 1970s Monty Python twist by having just four actors play dozens of parts and giving them the kind of clichés, gender-bending, prop-juggling and even ventriloquism that you’d usually see in comedy improv. And while there’s not much depth, the Lakewood cast keeps the laughs coming all night long.
The plot begins as suave, world-weary Englishman Richard Hannay (Bryan Bender) is deposited abruptly into a sinister but rather bewildering plot by dastardly foreign organization The 39 Steps to bring down England as we know it. Tall and lanky, Bender does a creditable job channeling both John Cleese (though with some dull patches) and an I-know-I’m-handsome Errol Flynn. Frank Roberts and Paul Richter bring a Laurel-and-Hardy charm to the dozens of hat-switching side characters Hannay encounters as he solves the mystery. Richter plays the manic Scottish professor, bumbling policeman, glazed-smile show master of ceremonies (among many others), and Roberts is very fetching as the lady innkeeper and gives real emotional pathos to the idiot savant Mr. Memory.
But it’s Deya Ozburn who carries real dramatic weight here. As she brings to life each of the women that Hannay falls briefly in love with, she manages to do more than just draw superbly on stereotypes: the seductive spy Annabella Schmidt with her accent as thick as her eyeliner is gutsy, the downtrodden Scottish housewife Margaret gets a heart-rending innocence, the ditzy blonde Pamela actually finds some dignity.
The lighting could have added more subtlety, and the play between Bender and his apparently recalcitrant sound crew lacked conviction. More use could have been made of the upper galleries of Lex Gernon’s very clever set.
But Munn keeps both pace and blocking energetic, and the audience involvement hits just the right note of fourth-wall surprise. Every visual gag you’ve ever seen and more that you haven’t — dueling pipes, a movable window for escapes and that versatile door frame — is brought out, made funny and made fun of. And if Lakewood’s “The 39 Steps” isn’t totally hilarious, it comes pretty close.