‘39 Steps’ to satisfying silliness

You can’t take anything seriously in “The 39 Steps,” a cheeky send-up of the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie about mistaken identities.

And that’s the fun of watching Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble’s version of Patrick Barlow’s comedy, which won the Olivier Award for Best Play of 2007, two Tonys for sound and lights and a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience for Roundabout’s Broadway production in 2008.

Adapted from the 1915 novel by John Buchan that was the basis for Hitchcock’s espionage thriller, this parody keeps the characters and plot, but also gleefully borrows from “Vertigo,” “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” “Psycho” and “North By Northwest” for heightened melodrama, visual gags and slapstick.

Director Kirsten Wylder, formerly of Carlyle, adds clever touches and “Easter eggs” for Hitchcock fans. She also keeps the show moving at a breakneck pace, which is crucial to the format.

The four actors go all in, and capably meet the demands of such a challenging show.

Pete Winfrey plays the dashing hero, Richard Hannay, who is in a rut now that he moved back home to a dreary flat in London. But before he can bemoan his boring life further, he is caught up in international intrigue through a mysterious woman, Annabella Schmidt (Rachel Tibbetts). And thus, begins his journey as the archetypal “man on the run.”

Winfrey is the only one of the quartet that plays one role throughout, and he does a fine deadpan version of a typical ’30s movie star. Tibbetts smoothly transitions into three different women (and hairstyles).

Very funny Carl Overly Jr. and Ellie Schwetye portray a plethora of characters, sometimes playing two at the same time.

They are fleet-footed and agile actors who switch personas and costumes briskly, using broad dialects for comical effect. They elicit many laughs through their physical movements as well.

The costumes designed by Elizabeth Henning perfectly compliment the period and myriad of roles while the economical props, collected by Tibbetts, are comically effective (short beds for lanky frames, wee bits of food on a tray, round tray for steering wheel).

The play benefits from outstanding dialect work by Pamela Reckamp, allowing the performers to have fun with Scottish, Irish and British accents, and the different shades in between.

Effective lighting design by Erik Kuhn and sound by Schwetye enhance the enjoyment of this entertaining feast for the eyes and ears.

Part of the play’s charms is that it’s supposed to take place in an intimate setting, and the small space at The Chapel helps create the close-up feeling.

“The 39 Steps” is purely a silly romp, and the slipping into different characters doesn’t have to be smooth, which adds to the laughs. The four performers carry it off splendidly.

Well played, SATE.

“The 39 Steps”

  • Who: Slightly Askew Theatre Ensemble
  • When: Wednesday through Saturday until Nov. 14
  • Where: The Chapel, 6238 Alexander Drive, St. Louis
  • www.slightlyoff.org