'39 Steps' Mixes 'Vaudeville and Farce,' Director Says

Bell Wesel said the play is enjoyable for Hitchcock fans and for those who never saw the 1935 film.

Almost 80 years after Alfred Hitchcock's suspenseful thriller "The 39 Steps" hit theaters, a play based on the film is about to hit a different kind of theater.

"The dialogue is actually lifted directly from the original film [screenplay], but it’s a complete twist on it so it’ll be very funny," Director Bell Wesel said.

Wesel drove to Chatham from her home in Brooklyn every day for months for the chance to direct "The 39 Steps at the Chatham Playhouse. The play opens the 91st season for the Chatham Community Players Friday.

Hitchcock fans might be surprised to see the suspense turned into what Wesel termed "a combination of vaudeville and farce," but, she said, "we have special appearances from some other of Hitchcock's stories: 'Psycho,' 'Marnie,' 'Vertigo,'" Wesel said. "If you’re familiar with the movies, you’ll be at home."

And even if you have not seen these films, Wesel says the audience is still sure to enjoy the production.

"The original '39 Steps' was a very, very serious spy story," she said. "This is a twist on it where four actors play all the characters, about 135 different people."

"People" might be putting it a little loosely. Two of the play's four actors play about 130 roles, including Scottish lochs, trees and streams.

"It's kind of amazing. You have some very versatile performances," Wesel said. "I am stunned constantly with how good these people are. They change costumes, they change hats, they change everything. They’re really, really wonderful fun."

Glen Post of Boonton and Chip Prestera of Stirling, credited as Clown No. 1 and Clown No. 2, take on the majority of these roles. Erica Knight of Clinton Township plays three of the female roles from the original Hitchcock film.

David Cantor of Berkeley Heights plays the hero of the play, Richard Hannay, whose life is turned upside-down after he discovers a woman killed in his apartment. Hannay finds himself traveling from London to Scotland to stop military secrets from being smuggled from the country, all while evading the police who suspect him of the murder.

In a play with such constant scene and character changes demanded of the actors, one might think a blackbox theater such as the Chatham Playhouse would opt for a bare set with more elaborate props. In fact, Wesel said, the opposite happened.

"It isn't bare at all. What is new about it is the scene changes constantly," she said. "Roy Pancirov designed and built it, and Andrew Sickler did the painting. ... The set is absolutely beautiful."

Instead, the furniture is minimal. "They managed to make everything out of four steamer trunks, one door and one window," Wesel said. "That's all there is, and the set transforms from Hannay's flat in London to the Scottish Highlands to the London Palladium."

This is Wesel's first time directing at the Chatham Playhouse. She previously directed at Maplewood's What Exit? Theater Company. She said of her commitment to the play, "You know that I must love it to pay for all those tolls."

Other credits for the production include:

  • Scenic Designer - Roy Pancirov
  • Scenic Painting - Andrea Sickler
  • Costume Designer - Tom Marshall assisted by Bev Wand
  • Lighting Designer - Richard Hennessy 
  • Sound Designer - Joe DeVico.

"The 39 Steps" runs from weekends beginning Friday through Saturday, Oct. 20, with performances at 8 p.m. except for Oct. 14, when the curtain rises at 3 p.m.

Tickets are $20 for adults and $18 for youths and seniors, and can be purchased online up to three hours before performances, or by telephone at (973) 635-7363.

john crouthamel October 04, 2012 at 02:35 PM
I saw this off Broadway a few years ago. It is based on a serious Hitchcock drama from circa 1939. It is now a comedy and one of the funniest shows I have seen. You will enjoy it.
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