At Gloucester Stage, “The 39 Steps” Amazes and Astounds
By Tom Hauck
In this era of computer generated film “performances” that create an artificial reality of human capabilities, it’s a daunting task indeed for a regional stage company, in a production with only four actors, to startle an audience and leave them breathless. Yet this is what “The 39 Steps,” expertly directed by Robert Walsh, now through July 28 at The Gloucester Stage Company, does handily.
It begins with the fast-paced script, adapted by Patrick Barlow from the 1915 novel by John Buchan. The play premiered in 1995 and ran for nine years in London’s West End. It’s a laugh-out-loud parody of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller, and lest you think that this makes it somehow less artistic, you’d be mistaken. This physical comedy relies on the precise split-second timing of the four actors, who tangle in a string of set pieces that strive to top each other for outrageous choreography. The gags, relentless and perfectly executed, compel you to watch closely so that you won’t miss a single nuance.
The cast is superb. Stage veterans Amanda Collins, Gabriel Kuttner, Paul Melendy, and Lewis D. Wheeler are a well-oiled comic machine. Wheeler plays Richard Hannay, a man caught up in a mysterious espionage kerfuffle, while Collins, Kuttner, and Melendy trade off multiple roles as if it were as easy as trading hats—which is what they literally do! The stage performers are ably assisted by Malachi Rosen, who from his onstage office provides a steady stream of sound effects, and to whom the actors occasionally direct their complaints (in this show, no wall is left unbroken!).
When celebrating such an outstanding ensemble cast, the reviewer is rightly reluctant to shine a spotlight on any individual performer, for fear that by doing so the brilliance of the other three might appear to be dimmed. Yet I would be remiss if I failed to give special notice to the mind-blowing physical and vocal skills of Paul Melendy. There is no Walt Disney cartoon character or SNL cast member who can prepare you for the astonishing, barely human shrieks and sneers that issue from this actor’s mouth. When midway into the show he appears as Professor Jordan, the energy of the production, already high, goes through the roof.
Whether you’re a denizen of the theater or you haven’t bought a ticket in years, this production will amaze you. It will bring you to a place you might think has vanished forever—a place where real humans create marvelous magic, right in front of your eyes.
“The 39 Steps” is playing now through July 28 at The Gloucester Stage Company. For tickets, call 978-281-4099, or go to gloucesterstage.com.