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Fun on Wheels

Everything's moving in The 39 Steps

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On the face of it, an innocent man wrongly accused of murder wouldn't seem to be an apt subject for comedy. But Alfred Hitchcock made a quietly witty film about such a circumstance in 1935 with The 39 Steps. The stage version of that spy caper, now at the Cleveland Play House, turns the grins into guffaws thanks to a splendidly wacky production.

The craziness starts with a four-person cast, two of whom play the central characters and the other two who render virtually everyone else in London and Scotland. The players are abetted by ingenious staging devices involving windows, ladders, tables — all of which spin around on wheels as needed.

If you know the movie, you will appreciate many of the scene-by-scene send-ups, since the play hews closely to the film. But that knowledge isn't at all necessary to enjoy this romp. It begins when the dapper Richard Hannay, deliciously played by the debonair Nick Sandys, is bored at home and decides to do something utterly pointless — go to the theater. Soon, a gunshot rings out, and Hannay finds himself with a mysterious young woman named Annabella (Sarah Nealis, who also plays two other key female roles) on his arm. Whispering darkly about "The 39 Steps," she begs him to take her to his home.

The next morning, that lady falls onto Hannay's lap, dead with a knife in her back, and suddenly Hannay is on the run for a murder he did not commit.

If you've sensed nothing funny so far, you're right. The humor is all in the fast and clever way characters appear and then interact with the sparse sets. All in all, it's a light-hearted evening without an iota of seriousness. But it's seriously funny in all the right ways.

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