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StageStruck: Stepping into the Thirties

Two "vaudevilles" capture an era of crisis and hope.

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Thursday, May 17, 2012
Lee Chambers Photo
Left to right: Scott Severance, David Mason, Kathy McCafferty and Richard Vaden in The 39 Steps

Two plays in the area this month, both set in the 1930s, look at the Depression era through opposite ends of the telescope. The American Clock, by Arthur Miller, is a large-canvas, 50-character epic about people caught in the shock wave of the stock market crash. The 39 Steps is a miniaturized reconstruction of Alfred Hitchcock's epic 1935 thriller—or, I should say, deconstruction, since it's performed by just four actors and played strictly for laughs.

Patrick Barlow's stage adaptation of the Hitchcock movie—drawing also on John Buchan's novel, which launched the spy genre—is a multifaceted parody of the thriller-chase genre, the overwrought 1930s style, and the conventions of both theater and film. Greg Trochlil's set for the current production at the Majestic Theater is a theater—a red-curtained proscenium flanked by stage boxes—and in director Zora Kachadurian's concept we're watching a threadbare provincial troupe attempting to translate the film onto the stage, with laughable results.

David Mason plays Richard Hannay, a bored young Englishman whose ennui is abruptly cured when a beautiful Mata Hari dies in his arms and he finds himself on the run from both the police and Nazi agents. All the other parts are played by three quick-change artists. Kathy McCafferty plays a trio of femmes fatales, and Scott H. Severance and Richard Vaden take on over 100 other roles, male and female, sometimes several at once. I particularly enjoyed the pair's double acts, including a team of haw-haw traveling salesmen, a Scottish innkeeper and wife, and the memory-act artist and emcee in the music hall where the play begins and ends.

The trick to making this kind of broad send-up work is to play the silliness for all it's worth without tipping over into look-at-me-aren't-I-funny burlesque. Mason walks that line beautifully, personifying while parodying the "teddibly proppah" tweedy Brit, and once McCafferty's overblown mock-Slavic spy is killed off she handles the other women with comic aplomb. The two multipurpose Clowns, as they're called in the script, only occasionally lapse into self-indulgent clowning.

Equal parts lampoon and homage—including punning allusions to other Hitchcock films and music from Bernard Herrmann's overheated soundtracks—The 39 Steps is a pell-mell vaudeville that celebrates the movies' captivating corn and the theater's talent for instant illusion-making.

Arthur Miller subtitled The American Clock "A Vaudeville" because it takes the form of an old-time variety show, a series of dramatic vignettes set off by period songs. Martin Shell's upcoming production in Ashfield is a rare chance to see this sprawling saga by a master of the American stage.

In the play, the insouciant "let's face the music and dance" outlook purveyed in silver screen amusements links arms with the era's "brother, can you spare a dime" anguish through the story of one family struggling through hard times, set against a backdrop of dozens of others. It's no can-do escapist entertainment like the original 39 Steps, but both of them capture the era in a moment of crisis and hope.

The 39 Steps: Through May 20, Majestic Theater, 131 Elm St., West Springfield, (413) 747-7797, majestictheater.com.

The American Clock: May 25-June 2, Ashfield Community Theater, Ashfield Town Hall, (413) 628-4574, acth.org.

Contact Chris Rohmann at StageStruck@crocker.com.

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