Madness is afoot in Lenox


LENOX - It's been only a matter of weeks since Jason Asprey, Elizabeth Aspenlieder and Josh Aaron McCabe - along with Kate Abbruzzese - finished setting the stage at Shakespeare & Company's Elayne P. Bernstein Theatre on fire with their incendiary performances in Mark Roberts' explosive drama, "Parasite Drag."

Now - joined this time by David Joseph - Asprey, Aspenlieder and McCabe are back but the temper and temperament are anything but serious.

The material is " The 39 Steps," Patrick Barlow's inventive stage adaptation of John Buchan's 1915 novel and the classic film made of it in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock, to which Barlow's play owes a great deal.

Buchan has conceived his adaptation as a merry tour-deforce for four performers - one actress (in this case, Aspenlieder) who plays three women who figure prominently; two actors (Joseph and McCabe) who, between them, play more than 20 roles; and one actor (Asprey) who plays the story's beleaguered hero, Richard Hannay, a bored, restless Canadian who has returned to London and whose trip to a London music hall to relieve his ennui ends in a murder for which he is framed. Armed with only an enigmatic reference to an estate in Scotland and the dying mention of the "39 steps" ringing in his ears, Hannay sets off in pursuit of answers while he, in turn, is pursued by the police and by members of an underground Nazi spy ring.

Jonathan Croy has directed all this with a steady hand and a keenly focused eye. While his set gives his actors only the barest number of props and furniture items to work with, they are used inventively and imaginatively.

Asprey brings an intriguing element of self-absorption with hint of narcissism to his Hannay, especially at the beginning. As his Hannay makes his way through the unkempt maze of deceit and secrecy, he, at times, seems little more than straight man to the delightfully antic characters McCabe and Joseph surround him with.

Those of you who remember Aspenlieder's inspired turn a few seasons back in Tom Stoppard's "Rough Crossing" will catch faint evocations of her performance then as a self-absorbed Eastern European actress in her sublime portrayal here of Annabella Schmidt, the mysterious woman who turns Hannay's life around. But she doesn't stop there. Her bountiful comedic talents also are on full display in her heart-rending Margaret McTyte, a Scottish farmer's much-trampled-upon wife. Aspenlieder also is credible as Pamela, an unwilling partner in Hannay's travels.

The overall pacing and rhythm are rough, often sluggish, particularly in an early scene in a railroad car involving Hannay and two lingerie salesmen, a scene that loses much of the momentum that's been gathered to that point. I suspect, however, that much of that roughness and lack of crisp definition will vanish as the run progresses.

These four are too adept to let the opportunities Barlow provides slip away.


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