For fun and spy games, take ‘The 39 Steps’

By Don Aucoin GLOBE STAFF  NOVEMBER 21, 2017

Dissimilar though they may seem, slapstick farce and espionage thrillers do share certain traits.

Both genres rely on scenarios so farfetched that we’d roll our eyes at them in any other context. And both depend on pinpoint execution — in the writing or performance — so that all the moving parts at least seem to fit together at the end.

Director Allison Olivia Choat finds the sweet spot on that common ground in her delectably funny staging of “The 39 Steps’’ at Moonbox Productions.

Choat’s cast of talented and indefatigable actors race with gusto through the razzle-dazzle absurdities of “The 39 Steps,’’ Patrick Barlow’s labyrinthine stage adaptation of the 1915 John Buchan novel and the classic 1935 film by Alfred Hitchcock.

You may recall the Hitchcock movie as the one in which Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll wind up handcuffed to one another as they scramble across the Scottish countryside, trying to stay one step ahead of evil spies. At Moonbox, the cuffs are worn by Kevin Cirone and Sarah Gazdowicz as a couple who are thrust into each other’s arms, quite literally, when they get swept up in a murky matter of international intrigue involving a secret formula the bad guys are determined to get their hands on.

Cirone portrays Canadian bon vivant Richard Hannay, who on a visit to London is wrongly accused of murder and forced to flee, while Gazdowicz plays an elegant woman named Pamela who is none too impressed with Richard when he suddenly pops into her train compartment.

Gazdowicz also portrays a couple of other characters, which leaves around 40 roles to be handled at Moonbox by Matthew Zahnzinger and Bob Mussett. Rubber-faced, loose-limbed, and endlessly energetic, Zahnzinger and Mussett sustain a dizzying pace as they inventively transform — sometimes in mid-scene — from one character to another, and often one accent to another.

The perpetual challenge for small theater companies like Moonbox Productions is to find ways to do a lot with a little. Barlow’s script calls for only four performers, but to its credit, Moonbox has not shied away from shows that require large casts since its founding in 2011. Headed by producing artistic director Sharman Altshuler, the troupe tackled Sondheim’s “Company’’ a few years ago, albeit with mixed results. Moonbox had more success with a circus-driven “Barnum’’ earlier this year, and its 2014 production of “The Musical of Musicals (The Musical!)’’ was one of the most entertaining shows I saw that year.

For “The 39 Steps,’’ the company is back in spoofy-sendup mode, and the results are consistently enjoyable, apart from a sluggish patch in Act Two.

It was a decade ago that Barlow’s adaptation, then titled “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,’’ received its US premiere at Boston’s Huntington Theatre Company, directed by Maria Aitken, before going on to a lengthy Broadway run.

A small venue like the Plaza Theatre just might be the right size for “The 39 Steps,’’ notwithstanding the considerable amount of time the audience has to spend watching the cast move props and scenery into place. The actors turn that chore into a frenetic ballet, maneuvering a trunk, an armchair, a stepladder, and sundry other pieces to simulate a train, an apartment, a Scottish moor, a country house in Scotland, and so on. (The set design is by John Paul Devlin, the costumes are by Erica DeSautels, and the sound design, with skirling bagpipes that constitute an amusingly recurrent motif, is by Dan Costello.)

Gazdowicz demonstrates finesse in her portrayals of three very different women, including a mysterious figure named Annabella Schmidt, who fires a gun in the middle of a routine in a London theater by a performer named Mr. Memory, then pleads for Richard’s help, saying she is being pursued by assassins. (Turns out she’s not wrong about that.) Cirone, meanwhile, brings a winking aplomb to his performance as Richard. A debonair, mustached fellow in a bespoke gray suit, Richard is a classic Hitchcockian protagonist: forced to go on the run after he is accused of a crime he didn’t commit.

The Moonbox production is laced with references to Hitchcock’s oeuvre, including “North by Northwest’’ and “Rear Window.’’ Who knows? If the master were alive to see this “39 Steps,’’ he just might summon his version of a smile.