By Starla Pointer • Staff Writer • 

Serious laughs

Marcus Larson/News-RegisterRichard Hannay (Rich Pratt) is shocked when Annabella (Julia Sargent) falls over dead.
Marcus Larson/News-Register
Richard Hannay (Rich Pratt) is shocked when Annabella (Julia Sargent) falls over dead.

With laughter.

Directed and skillfully cast by Ted Desel, Gallery’s “Alfred Hitchock’s The 39 Steps” is a ray of sunshine on a foggy British day.

The plot is as thin as a weak cup of tea, but it’s not the most important point here, anyway. This jolly good show opens with Richard Hannay (Rich Pratt, with just the right mix of seriousness and humor), recently returned from service to king and country and now bored, bored, bored. His Army chums are either dead or, worse, married, and he has little to exercise his body or his mind.

Then intrigue enters with a well-turned ankle and a German accent. Annabella (played with charm by Julia Sargent, who also morphs into a British rose and a Scottish lassie, two of the other half-dozen women in the show) reveals her secret mission to Hannay, then promptly falls into his lap in full rigor mortis. How will Hannay wriggle out of this one? The audience applauds when he does.

But Hannay has only wriggled from one tight spot to another. Soon he’s the subject of an international manhunt, suspected of murder and unsure of whom to trust.

Will he be caught? Will he deliver the coded message? Will he find out what’s really important?

Throughout the play, Hannay is pursued, entertained and assisted by a host of characters played by two cast members, Jeff Sargent and Caleb Kearns. “The 39 Steps” is truly an ensemble comedy, but if I had to pick any standouts, it would be this pair. With quick changes of clothing and accents, they’re almost always spot on — and hilarious — in their portrayals, whether they’re a pair of policemen or a couple of innkeepers.

Costumes are just right, from the menacing bobby hats to the hilariously Scottish Scotsman to Hannay’s period suit and Frau Annabella’s evening gown.

The show is rich with auditory cues, which often stand as laugh lines on their own. But perhaps the funniest noises are those produced by Mr. Memory himself — now we know what thinking sounds like.

I couldn’t love the set more. Desel and crew turned Gallery’s Arena Theater into a mini proscenium stage, complete with a striking red curtain (one of the best visuals is Jeff Sargent silhouetted against the bright curtain when, as the emcee of the musicale, he climbs into the audience seeking questions).

The cast and nimble stagehands make good use of every inch, turning the tiny space into a London street, a train, the Scottish moors, a hotel bedroom (another subtle, but hilarious moment) and — voila! — a theater.

Some less subtle, but equally humorous sight gags pay homage to Hitchcock; planes that give chase, a rear window, etc.

There’s only one thing missing in this show: a cameo by the director himself.

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