Swans Commentary » swans.com June 30, 2008  



High & Low Comedy On Broadway


by Charles Marowitz





(Swans - June 30, 2008)   Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps revives some of the most treasured techniques of English pantomime and American vaudeville -- viz. parody, quick-change impersonation, cross-dressing, over-the-top characterization and transparent theatrical trickery.

The spoof faithfully follows Hitchcock's l935 thriller but with zestful and imaginative abbreviations every step of the way. It is something of a toss-up as to which is loopier, the original film or the accelerated travesty. This was one of Hitchcock's earliest movies and it shows all the signs of its mid-1930s progeny. It is as implausible and farfetched as Hitchcock's later work was compelling and masterfully calculated. The show itself, a transplant from London's Tricycle Theatre Company, is full of frantic energy and split-second transformations executed by an inexhaustible cast of four directed by Maria Aitken, the Mistress of Maniacal Low Comedy (despite being the author of a misleading book entitled Style: Acting in High Comedy).

The comedy in The 39 Steps consists of comic interpolations on a storyline so calculated and effete that almost any distortion of it constitutes an improvement. Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll relied on their personal charm to make the film palatable and even at times heartwarming. The plot, a loose thread that winds its way through a series of suspenseful scenes, concerns the quest for a secret formula in the hands of a foreign power, which, if not uprooted, threatens the safety of the Free World. This is about as close to anti-fascist propaganda that 1930s England would dare go. The nefarious are never identified, though their Fifth Columnists are seeded throughout the civilian population of both Scotland and England. But the plot-popper is nothing more than a trigger to detonate the cornball characters and situations that comprise the film.

The show is predicated on the ingenuity of Patrick Barlow's irreverent adaptation and director Aitken's comic legerdemain -- but the hardest thing in the world is to stretch parody into a full-length evening's entertainment and although everyone concerned does their damndest to mug their way through the intricacies of the plot, there are several scenes where the tension between the '30s thriller and the 21st century send-up simply falls flat. In most instances, it immediately rallies but in doing so, it must rely on "funny voices," grotesque malapropisms, and strenuous mugging, which, because they serve no organic continuity, emerge as arbitrary gags. The over-energetic cast cavorts like playful delinquents doodling on the pages of a serious piece of fiction, but the fact that the fiction itself is so feeble fully justifies their desecration.

If The 39 Steps epitomizes the kind of frolics we associate with low comedy, David Mamet's November is a scintillating example of "high comedy"; a kind of roughhouse combination of Oscar Wilde and Neal Simon. Written in what we might call "Mamet-speak," the play is Mametically sprinkled with those four- and eight-letter expletives that have endeared this foul-mouthed playwright to elitist audiences throughout the country.

Here, the plot centers around a lame duck president who senses he will soon be consigned to the dustbin of history and therefore, before fading away, wants to make as big a bundle of cash as possible. The ingenious device he resorts to in raising these big bucks (apart from the traditional practice of selling pardons) is for the commander in chief to persuade the national representative of turkey farmers to fork up several million dollars in return for promoting the sale of turkeys in a gala Thanksgiving ceremony; i.e., the traditional ritual in which the president highlights turkeys by pardoning one of the doomed birds in a nationally-televised broadcast on the White House lawn.

Far fetched as this premise may appear to be, no sooner has it been flaunted than Mamet fastidiously develops it into the highest reaches of absurdity. There is also a counterplot (equally as incredible) in which the president's chief speechwriter who, being a lesbian, wishes the president to preside over a public marriage ceremony between herself and her longtime partner giving a general blessing to gay marriages everywhere and thereby ending his term in office on a morally high note.

Preposterous as these manufactured conflicts may sound (and they are no less preposterous than the one that propels The 39 Steps), Mamet, using a comic ingenuity he has never revealed before, brings them both off with callisthenic wordplay and dazzling flashes of wit, which almost persuade us to forgive this author the recent, torturous, half-baked film-noir Redbelt that revealed Mamet in his most preposterous, muscle-flexing, macho guise. In November, all his biceps are relaxed and he has produced a high-flying, thoroughly endearing madcap comedy reminiscent of Of Thee I Sing. It has the added advantage of dissing the present incumbent so viciously that, were he not the holder of the highest office in the land, W. would certainly instigate a libel action of gargantuan proportions.

Nathan Lane as the bedeviled chief executive (who ultimately concedes to the legitimization of gay marriage throughout America) turns in a maniacal and masterful performance, which excels his role as the conniving Bialastock in The Producers, and Laurie Metcalf as the domestically-obsessed lesbian assistant gives as good as she gets throughout -- which, in partnering the ebullient Mr. Lane, is about as high as praise can reach.

The plot's absurdity and the excesses it instigates could easily have turned November into a "turkey," but despite one's initial fears, the play emerges as one of the most pleasurable byproducts of the obsession with national politics that has recently mesmerized the American public.

As I write, the closing notice for the show has been posted -- which is an obscene and incredible development as I doubt we will see a political farce of such uplifting and sophisticated absurdity for many seasons to come. But on Broadway, the tendency is for the dross to flourish and the gold to disappear.


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About the Author

Charles Marowitz on Swans (with bio).



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Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
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Published June 30, 2008