By Randi Bjornstad
If you’ve got a bare spot in your evening calendar on Jan. 27-29 or Feb. 2-4, you’re in luck, because those are the remaining days that Oregon Contemporary Theatre will perform its latest play, “The 39 Steps,” based on a novel by Scottish author John Buchan and turned into the classic 1935 movie — part of a series portraying innocent men being pursued for crimes they didn’t commit — by director Alfred Hitchcock.
While the movie had a straightforward serious note, the play does not. It’s physical comedy in the finest British tradition, and it’s simply wonderful to watch.
My husband (photographer Paul Carter) and I saw this play first on Broadway, probably during 2009 — it had stints in several theaters at various times in New York City, and I can’t remember which one we saw — and various pratfalls and sight gags have stuck with both of us ever since.
The most amazing aspect of the show is that it features only four actors, but collectively they play dozens of parts in rapid succession. Their changes from one to another often happen in seconds right before the audience’s eyes, using hats, wigs, clothing thrown on and off over previous characters’ costumes even as they rush around changing the scenery, pushing beds and a doorway to and fro and even turning four trunks into an ersatz four-seater car.
The book and the movie have an actual plot that engulfs the unwilling hero, Richard Hannay — played here by Tom Wilson — in a variety of unwelcome episodes that involve an international spy ring trying to steal and smuggle military secrets out of the country. But the plot is not really the thing in the stage version. It’s loosely there, but mostly for the purpose of creating a thread for the hilarity perpetrated by the actors.
Wilson as Hannay is the straight man, if you can say there is one. Inga Wilson — if there’s a relation, it wasn’t advertised — plays the best-developed female roles, including the ill-fated spy Annabella, as well as Pamela, the love interest, and Margaret, a charming but subjugated Scottish farmwife.
The other two members of the cast are labeled Clown 1 and Clown 2 — Colin Law and Reese Madden — but that doesn’t do them justice. They flip constantly from one character to another, including a wonderfully eccentric Scottish man-and-wife who run an out-of-the-way hotel in the Scottish Highlands.
That’s where Hannay and Pamela end up, handcuffed together and impersonating a newly married runaway couple when Hannay drags her along after escaping from Law and Madden’s main incarnations as bumbling police officers.
One of the simplest scenes in the show — maybe even my favorite — is when Hannay escapes the pursuing constables from a train, miming a precarious climb out of a window and onto the roof with his coat somehow blowing wildly in the wind as the car lurches along the (unseen) tracks. The policeman follows, and the two tussle atop the train car in a pantomime that makes it seem perfectly plausible to onlookers.
Timing is everything in physical comedy, and director John Schmor does a good job of keeping everything happening at just the right moments and coaching his actors to be only just as believable as they need to be.
The OCT version of the play isn’t quite as slick as the Broadway show I remember — I think that performance had even more characters and visual tricks — but missing “The 39 Steps” on the local stage would be a shame.
Another real plus about it: It’s a show kids can enjoy as much as adults do.
The 39 Steps
When: 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 27-28 and Feb. 2-4 and 2 p.m.; the 2 p.m. matinee on Jan. 29 has a “talk back” after the show
Where: Oregon Contemporary Theatre, 194 W. Broadway in downtown Eugene
Tickets: $16 to $31; $15 for students with valid ID, available online at octheatre.org or at the box office, 541-465-1506