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Stage Review

Hitch a ride

Master of suspense gets slapstick take in 'The 39 Steps' at the Huntington

‘‘The 39 Steps’’ comes to the Huntington Theatre Company, where its American premiere opens the main-stage season, with promises of high hilarity and theatrical thrills.

The play (its full, underpunctuated title is ‘‘Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps’’) won the 2007 Laurence Olivier Award for best new comedy in London; after Boston, it’s already scheduled to move to Broadway. And it certainly sounds promising: a slapstick stage adaptation of the 1935 Hitchcock film, which was itself an ingenious reimagining of the 1915 John Buchan spy novel about a bon vivant caught up in a web of international intrigue.

As it turns out, the play has many amusing moments, even more clever ones, and a few truly inventive instances of imaginative stagecraft. But somehow all these pleasures do not combine to transport us onto the high, giddy plane of sustained comedic rapture. ‘‘The 39 Steps’’ is too insubstantial a bit of moonshine to make any claim on us other than entertainment, so it needs to be extremely entertaining.

Hitchcock accomplished that feat with razor-sharp construction and expertly accumulated suspense. The stage version, directed by Maria Aitken and adapted by the British comedian and playwright Patrick Barlow from a concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon (phew!), undercuts the suspense with goofy puns and sight gags, then lets the goofiness sag for minutes at a time by doggedly returning to its faithful retracing of the screenplay’s steps. All 39 of them, and then some.

In fairness, the wit and economy of some effects are dazzling: the chase scene atop a hurtling train, represented by a row of leather trunks; three ladders transformed into a steel bridge; the strobe lights and flashlights and footlights that lighting designer Kevin Adams amusingly employs to re-create the flickering chiaroscuro of the film; and, best of all, the shadow-puppet sequence that turns a sheet and a few bits of cardboard into Hitchcock’s lowering Highland skies and ominous biplanes, then escalates into a hilarious pastiche of Hitchcockian images. (Don’t miss the cameo by a very familiar silhouette.)

The actors, too, display a breathtaking range of skills and moods. First of all, there are just four of them, filling more than 100 roles. Charles Edwards, as the hunted but ever debonair protagonist, Richard Hannay, is the only import from the London cast, and he delivers a gently satiric version of the film’s debonair Robert Donat with effortless charm. Jennifer Ferrin gets the wisecracking ingenue role — handcuffed to Hannay, whom she believes to be a murderer — and executes it with wit and style.

But the real heroes are the two actors each billed only as ‘‘Clown,’’ Arnie Burton and Cliff Saunders. With dizzying speed and crack timing, they slip from one character to the next, and the next, and the next, as easily as they change hats — or bowlers, or caps, or bobbies’ helmets, or tam o’shanters, or nightcaps, or sou’westers, or scarves. Credit designer Peter McKintosh for the fastidious selection of headgear — and for the precise assortment of props that allows the creation of all those scenes — but credit Burton and Saunders for their expert execution of some devilishly demanding tasks.

If only all that hard work actually led somewhere. Instead, we’re intermittently diverted by a playful visual effect, reduced to groans by a deliberately dreadful pun on a Hitchock title, or prodded to admire the cleverness of replicating cinematic images with minimal theatrical props. Yes, it’s brilliant to make a waterfall out of a shower curtain. But it’s even more brilliant — and more entertaining — to do it without insisting that we keep noticing how

Louise Kennedy can be reached at

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