CENTERVILLE— A good murder mystery can be surprisingly hilarious.
At least, that’s the case with “The 39 Steps,” running now through Oct. 22 in the Leishman Performance Hall at CenterPoint Legacy Theatre. The play, an adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 thriller, is both a homage and an affectionate parody of Hitchcock’s films, the thriller genre in general, and the sometimes ridiculous magic of theater itself.
The play starts by introducing us to Richard Hannay, a Canadian living in London who leads a perfectly dull and average life. Then, while attending a performance of “Mr. Memory,” a man famous for his powers of recall, he stumbles into a conspiracy that has him running across half of Scotland trying to clear his own name and figure out just what, exactly, the 39 Steps really are.
Sounds like a proper thriller, right? In some ways, it is – the script ends up hewing surprisingly close to the Hitchcock movie, even down to some of the finer details, and there are at least two murders over the course of the play. There’s also a considerable amount of implied violence, as well as chases and standoffs and various other forms of peril.
Helmed by director Joel Richardson, pretty much every second of it is delightfully hilarious. The script is both faithful to the plot and lovingly parodies every moment of it, highlighting the sheer absurdity of a lot of the old thriller conventions even as they use them. I don’t want to tell you too much – plot spoilers are the greatest enemy of both thrillers and comedies – but I have never seen the “mysterious figures lurking outside a window” cliché used more entertainingly than it is here.
Not only does the play poke gentle fun at Hitchcock, it also pokes gentle fun at plays in general. The necessities of the minimalist set make one scene on a bridge laugh-out-loud funny even before anyone’s opened their mouths, and it’s always fun when the cast interacts with stage manager (Josh Krahulec) when he’s not as prompt with an effect as they’d like. Beyond the humor, the sheer imagination of everything happening onstage – their plane is magnificent – adds to the charm.
The cast is excellent, with Anthony LeRoy Lovato as the dashing Richard Hannay and Natalie Peterson as three very different women he comes across. Lovato keeps Hannay walking the fine line between heroics and ridiculousness, vital for helping to keep the whole show together, and Peterson takes care to make all three of her characters wonderfully distinct. In addition, both performers had wonderful chemistry and comic timing.
Even more delightful, however, are three characters credited as Clowns in the cast list – Mike Gardner, Josh Curtis and Jessica Love – who play literally every other character in the story. They shift between their roles with enthusiastic aplomb, with expressions and accents that make even the most innocuous-seeming lines into treats. Between the three of them, they make a seemingly innocuous scene in which sheep block a suddenly misty road into the funniest thing I’ve seen onstage in a long time.