(Cirone, Zahnzinger, Mussett and Gazdowicz in Moonbox Productions’ “The 39 Steps”)
by Michele Markarian
“The 39 Steps”. Written by Evan George Patrick Barlow. Directed by Allison Olivia Choat. Presented by Moonbox Productions, the Plaza Theatre, Boston Center for the Arts, 539 Tremont Street, Boston through December 9.
“I was bored – no, more than bored, tired,” begins the play’s hapless, world weary protagonist, Richard Hannay (Kevin Cirrone), from a rented flat in London. He decides to go to the theater, where he meets a mysterious woman (Sarah Gazdowicz, playing one of three roles) who, after shooting off a gun in the theater, asks if she can spend the night. When his guest is mysteriously murdered, Hannay is the suspect-at-large and goes on the run, but not before the dying woman gives him the address of a professor in Scotland with the cryptic phrase, “the 39 steps.” It is here that Hannay’s boredom ends and his adventure begins, as he journeys to Scotland. Along the way, he meets another young woman as well as a multitude of characters, some benign, some nefarious, many inept, and all played by Man 1 (Bob Mussett) and Man 2 (Matthew Zahnzinger).
This scrappy production, directed with precision by Allison Olivia Choat, is so good that there is literally nothing not to like about it. Staged in the black box, the actors cleverly make use of metal chairs, ladders, some trunks, two doorframes, a music stand and minimal furniture to create a plethora of scenes (my favorite was the train). I was curious when two large white pillows were suddenly tossed onstage, flanking the chair car with the upside down music stand steering wheel, only to be revealed as – well, you’ll see. Let’s just say it was very, very clever. Along with the script, whose references to Hitchcock films will leave you chuckling.
The four-person cast is terrific. Mussett and Zahnzinger, as Man 1 and Man 2, are a team worthy of Laurel and Hardy – tireless and hilarious to watch. Zahnzinger’s characters range from deadpan to curmudgeon, with a whole lot of shades in between, each of them spot on and very, very, funny. Mussett’s turn as both the Professor and Mr. Memory is side-splitting, but also touching; there was an audible murmur from the audience when Mr. Memory befalls a bullet. The two of them as old men running a local Scottish election is a show in and of itself.
Cirrone is perfectly cast as Hannay, the handsome hero who finds himself in all kinds of unwanted, precarious situations without ever really losing his cool. Gazdowicz conjures three separate characters with liveliness and verisimilitude. What’s amazing about this production is the amazing array of accents – dialect coach Daniel Blackwell has done his job well, along with the actors.
“The 39 Steps” is not all slapstick and chuckles. Over the course of the two and a half hours, the audience is actually invested in the emotional life of our hero and his happiness. “You have no heart, Hannay. But you know this,”says the evil Professor to Hannay, and given the hero’s self-centeredness throughout the play, it kind of makes sad sense, even to him. But like a true hero on a quest, Hannay actually changes, and the ending is his – and our – reward.
I saw “The 39 Steps’ at the Criterion Theatre in London a few years back with my teenaged son, who also came with me to this production. Bear in mind that theater is not his thing – at all – but he said to me afterwards, “This is a fool-proof script. You just need energy.” We both agree that Moonbox’s excellent cast delivers just that, with loads of talent to boot. For more information and tickets, go to: http://www.moonboxproductions.org/