Walnut Street Theatre Packs a Punch This Season

By J. Cooper Robb
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Apr. 6, 2011

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Spies like us: Paul Riopelle (left) and Dan Hodge (center) are in pursuit of a wrongly accused David Hess.

The 39 Steps

The Walnut Street Theatre is offering audiences two entirely different theatergoing experiences with their productions of Broadway smash The 39 Steps and psychological thriller Speaking in Tongues.

Adapted almost word-for-word by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film (which was based on John Buchan’s taut mystery novel), Steps is a four-actor, quick-change comedy that revels in its own silliness.

The episodic story (which is told in 33 short scenes) focuses on Richard Hannay (a suave David Hess). An aimless London bachelor, Hannay’s life is given direction when he is wrongly accused of murdering a mysterious woman he just met. In order to exonerate himself, Hannay is forced to flee London for Scotland, hotly pursued by Scotland Yard and a pair of bumbling German spies.

Although Hess is onstage every moment of the two-hour production, his job is a breeze compared to the workload shouldered by Dan Hodge and Paul Riopelle, who between them play more than 100 characters, both male and female. Joan Hess chips in, playing three roles that include Hannay’s unwilling companion Pamela.

Director William Roudebush’s primary strategy for provoking laughs is to play every moment as quickly as possible and with maximum physicality. There is certainly no lack of action as Hannay is pursued by planes, cars and the police, who in the production’s best scene chase the fugitive along the outside of a rushing locomotive.

Barlow wants us to be involved with his characters but the aggressive theatricality (which is supported by Christopher Colucci’s superb sound design) trumps the storytelling at every turn. We are amused by the actors’ antics (especially Hodge, who is just as adept at playing a frisky female innkeeper as he is a senile assemblyman) and the production’s impressive physical and vocal calisthenics (the actors adopt many foreign accents), but the mystery involving a German espionage gang is lost amidst all the silliness.

Speaking in Tongues

At the Walnut’s small Independence Studio on 3, Andrew Bovell’s Speaking in Tongues likewise employs four actors in multiple roles, but that is where all resemblance to Steps ends. Instead, Speaking is a tightly wound, complex psychological thriller about eight lives that intersect with dire consequences.

Told in two distinct but connected acts, the first focuses on two couples’ shared infidelities. In the second act, Bovell introduces a mystery involving a missing woman, which through a variety of circumstances he shrewdly connects back to the play’s original foursome. It’s fun watching Bovell connect the dots in this jigsaw puzzle of a play. The story isn’t consistently plausible, but it is consistently engaging, thanks to Director John Peakes’ polished production, which features one of the season’s best ensembles. Peakes’ son Ian Merrill Peakes; his daughter-in-law, Karen Peakes; Barrymore Award-winner Susan Riley Stevens; and the marvelous William Zielinski are among the area’s top performers. They don’t disappoint here.

The repeated knock against Bovell’s play is that it is more intellectually stimulating than emotionally engaging. Peakes’ engrossing production is satisfying in both regards. Zielinski (who has perfected the art of listening onstage) is sensational as a police officer in a struggling marriage, and Stevens shines as a therapist with more issues than all her patients combined. And in a remarkably convincing performance, Ian Merrill Peakes coveys the mixed emotions of a husband who greets his wife’s disappearance with a combination of relief, despair and profound guilt.

While Peakes’ production is great fun to watch, Speaking is a tremendously sad and pessimistic play. The deeply flawed characters seek intimacy in the arms of strangers as they grow increasingly estranged from their partners. In a play about intersecting lives, Bovell’s characters end up alone, victims of their own mistrust and inability to forgive.

The 39 Steps. Through May 1. $10-$80. Speaking in Tongues. Through April 17. $30. Walnut Street Theatre. 825 Walnut St. 215.574.3555. walnutstreettheatre.org

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