Sunday, September 26, 2010

Spoofing Hitch

(Sarah Nealis, left, and Nick Sandys have a chat as bobbies Joe Foust and Bob Johansen look on in the Cleveland Play House production of Patrick Barlow's "The 39 Steps." Photo by Steve Mastroianni.)

Heading east on Euclid Avenue, the Cleveland Play House opens its season with a death-defying juggling act to put Barnum & Bailey to shame. Take a compendium of Carol Burnett movie spoofs, a gaggle of Monty Python sketches, the career of Alfred Hitchcock and some Mel Brooksian winks, spin them all in the air, never dropping a ball, and you miraculously wind up with a work that's equal parts parody, romantic adventure and valentine to the theater.

Patrick Barlow has amazingly refashioned Hitchcock's classic "The 39 Steps" - the first of his many lovers-on-the-lam spy thrillers - into a romp for four performers who, with a shilling's worth of props and a dazzling array of costumes, capture all the highlights, romance and suspense of the original film. At the same time, they amp up the breezy charm into some delicious self-parody, yet keep its gallant heart beating. Even though the evening is as light as your best souffle, it serves a noble purpose, demonstrating - as the ancient Greeks and Thornton Wilder liked to show - that all you need for great theater are some deft performers and lots of imagination. It's the perfect re-introduction to theater for that cousin who hasn't seen a play since his nursery-school production of "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown."

Playing what seem to be between 30 and 1,000 roles, Nick Sandys, Sarah Nealis, Joe Foust and Bob Johansen create an entire civilization built out of goofy accents and Bentley-like craftsmanship. My advice is to rent the movie, see the production and spend the next year trying to decide which gives you greater joy.

The Cleveland Playhouse performs "The 39 Steps" through October 10. For tickets, call 216-795-7000 or go to

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