NEW YORK (AP) — The clowns are back in town — and that's a great thing for the New York nightlife.
No, the circus hasn't rolled in. We mean the two indefatigable clowns in "39 Steps," the cheeky stage spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 spy thriller.
A hit across the world but criminally absent from New York for four years, a new production, with original clown Arnie Burton along for the ride, opened Monday at the Union Square Theater with good cheer and manic energy.
The campy send-up of the film has minimal props and just four actors, including Brittany Vicars in three roles — damsel in distress, undercover spy and a farmer's forlorn wife — and Robert Petkoff as the dashing hero with "wavy hair, light brown hazel eyes and a very attractive pencil moustache."
They're great, but the evening belongs to Burton and fellow clown Billy Carter, who each tackle 50 or so characters, from cackling salesmen of ladies' underwear to assorted police officers to various women to inanimate objects including rocks. They're part Marx brothers and part Monty Python.
It's not necessary to have seen the Hitchcock film to enjoy Patrick Barlow's stage version adapted not only from the movie — with choice bits of dialogue strategically lifted — but also from the novel by John Buchan. But it does add to the play's enjoyment to see how some of the movie's visually arresting moments are cleverly staged.
Director Maria Aitken makes miracles with the minimal scenery and few props, propelling her actors with astonishing fluidity. That old saying that timing is everything really is here. Trunks become a fast-moving train, shadow puppets are used to hysterical effect and there are several sequences when the clowns switch character hats and accents at such dizzying speed that applause breaks out.
The structure follows the film, in which the debonair hero outwits a parade of assorted villains to foil a nefarious spy ring, prove his innocence regarding a young woman's murder and gets the girl to boot. The actors play it straight, which makes the whole thing funnier, especially when dense fog rolls in a beat late or fireplaces don't light when they should.
One of the pleasures of the show is the winks to other Hitchcock movies such as "Rear Window," ''The Birds" and "Strangers on a Train." When our hero runs up a ladder, his would-be lover refuses: "It's too high!" she squeals. "I get vertigo."
The play opened in London in 2006, transferred to the West End and won an Olivier Award for best comedy. It then raced over the Atlantic and opened on Broadway in 2008, running for more than three years, before going off-Broadway and closing in 2011.
This latest production also has brought back Kevin Adams' awesome Tony Award-winning lighting design, which mixes flashlights, strobe lights and car headlights, and Mic Pool's complicated sound design, which also won a Tony.
It's good to have the looney clowns back and a special treat to have the plastic-faced Burton return, part of the hardest-working actor duo in the city.