Oldcastle's "The 39 Steps" is an exercise in manic behavior

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BENNINGTON, VT. — Drawing on a concept by Nobby Simon and Simon Corble for his stage adaptation of John Buchan's novel and Alfred Hitchcock's film, "The 39 Steps," playwright Patrick Barlow has found remarkable simplicity in daunting complexity. In the process, he's created a sublimely entertaining, richly imaginative play that draws on theater's elemental roots and the vivid, willing imagination of the audience.

Only four actors play, among them, roughly 100 characters. On an essentially bare stage, they make of chairs, tables, ladders, lamps, planks of wood, square wooden frames, hats, articles and scraps of clothing a richly imagined settings that range from a London flat to a train making its way through the English countryside, an estate in the Scottish Highlands, a car rumbling down a rutted country road, a London music hall, a country cottage, a modest inn. Think Hitchcock viewed through the prism of Monty Python and you have some idea of the game afoot.

It takes finesse to make this inventive, broad style work effectively. Unfortunately, both finesse and style are in short supply in Oldcastle Theatre Company's effortful season opener.

The action swirls around a lone figure named Richard Hannay (an insistently stolid Peter Langstaff), who has returned to 1935 London after an extended stay in Canada. On an evening when the boredom and solitude of his life are too much with him, he heads off to a near by music hall where he is accosted by a mysterious woman with a Germanic accent who persuades him to take her to his apartment where, in one of the production's more inspired moments, she winds up dead — a knife in her back — but not before having given Hannay the name of an estate in Scotland, the man who lives there and an enigmatic reference to The 39 Steps.

Hannay heads for the Scottish Highlands in search of answers, pursued not only by the police but a mysterious pair of thugs as well.

As Hannay, Langstaff is the only actor in the four-member cast who plays only one role. But his determined passivity and emotional immobility leaves director Nathan Stith's production without a center. Langstaff's nuance-free approach eliminates, among other things, the sly sexual undercurrents in Hannay's relationship with an attractive blonde named Pamela (Natalie Wilder in one of three roles) whom he meets by chance on a train and to whom he winds up being handcuffed, which makes for what should be a deliciously awkward overnight at a modest country inn.

As much as Langstaff maintains a not-so-discreet distance from both the play and his character, Wilder is the production's gem, Beginning with her first appearance as Annabella Schmidt, the mysterious woman with the German accent — Mel Brooks would thoroughly approve — and continuing through her portrayals of Pamela and also Margaret, a Scottish farmer's much put upon love- and sex-starved wife, Wilder finds the ideal balance between developed character on the one hand and, on the other, the sublimely antic impulses that drive this style of comedy.

In contrast, as nimble and resourceful as they can be in their portrayals of all the other characters in the play, Patrick Ellison Shea and the nimble Jim Staudt bring a certain self-consciousness to the drills they are put through as, respectively, Clown 1 and Clown 2. The sweat shows. As a result, rather than serve as integral storytelling devices, their comedic business and routines become ends in themselves. As a result, what should be — indeed, what can be — a sublime exercise in the antic joys of theatermaking stands as little more than a self-conscious exercise in manic behavior.

THEATER REVIEW

What: "The 39 Steps" by Patrick Barlow. Adapted from the novel by John Buchan, the movie by Alfred Hitchcock, and an original concept by Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble. Directed by Nathan Stith

With: Peter Langstaff, Natalie Wilder, Peter Ellison Shea, Jim Staudt

Designers: Richard Howe, set; David Groupé, lighting; Ursula McCarthy, costumes; Cory Wheat, sound

Who: Oldcastle Theatre Company

Where: 331 Main St., Bennington, Vt.

When: Through June 19. Wednesday through Saturday evenings at 7:30; Thursday and Sunday afternoons at 2

Running time: 1 hour 54 minutes (including one intermission)

Tickets: $37 (students $12)

How: 802-447-0564; oldcastletheatre.org; at the door


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