Hitchcock of the walk

By Shawn Parker
Photo by LukeAnthony Photography

Winning spy farce pays homage to film noir

Farces are a tricky business. When done well, they can evoke the subtle humor of Noel Coward or the broad slapstick of the Monty Python troupe. When they misfire, you can be left with something akin to a second-rate Wayans Brothers dud, which is better off being entirely avoided.

But Lansing theatergoers are in luck. The Riverwalk Theater presentation of “The 39 Steps” lands much closer to “Life of Brian” than “Scary Movie.” With a game, near-manic cast of only four, “39 Steps” whisks the viewer into a whirlwind of mystery and murder, action and — since it is a farce, after all — a heaping helping of humor.

It is 1935, Great Britain, and Richard Hannay (Joseph Baumann, with piercing blue eyes and an excellent pencil-thin moustache) is thrust into a world of double agents and intrigue when a mysterious woman he just met meets her untimely end — but not before leaving him an even more mysterious clue. Thus, Hannay is on the run and trying to figure out just what in the heck are the 39 Steps.

With its tiny cast, “39 Steps” requires three of the four actors to play multiple roles (only our beleaguered hero Hannay gets to stay himself) and all three knock it 420 feet into center field. As the three main female parts, Amy Winchell switches from femme fatale to coy to love-struck (and more) with aplomb — a wig and accent are all it takes to transform her. And as Hannay, Joseph Baumann nails the befuddled straight man, keeping the interactions with a maelstrom of characters perfectly paced and hilarious.

Scott Laban and Bob Purosky, as Clown 1 and Clown 2, are given the arduous task of playing everyone else. Male, female, adult, child. Cop. Paperboy. Train passengers. Sometimes more than one. In one scene. At the same time. But with infectious zeal, they throw themselves into every second, and it is a marvel to behold.

If there is a chink in the zany armor that is “39 Steps,” it is a few misplaced bits of fourth wall-breaking, where the overt allusions that this is all a performance distract from the otherwise sly proceedings.

But with top-notch performances, crisp, confident direction, and some ingenious action sequences with the simplest of props, “39 Steps” is a laugh-filled thrill, and a must-see presentation.

“The 39 Steps”
Riverwalk Theatre
Through March 24
7 p.m. Thursday; 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday,
2 p.m. Sunday
$14 general/$12 students, seniors, military ($4 off Thursdays)
228 Museum Drive
(517) 482-5700