NEW YORK (AP) — Some actors in New York play multiple roles a night. A very few are asked to play six dozen — including a rock and a river.
Such is the monumental task facing Billy Carter and Arnie Burton as they star in "39 Steps," the clever spoof of Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie thriller that returns to New York after a four-year absence.
The show is a whirlwind of dizzying costume changes as four actors play some 140 characters, from a Scottish policeman to a bog. The main props are just two ladders and three trunks.
"You lose weight, apparently, so that was one reason I took the job," joked Carter, who has starred opposite Kevin Spacey on Broadway and with Simon Russel Beale in London. "It's a free workout."
The play frames the thriller in a provincial British theater company desperate for a hit. Most of the actors and crew have abandoned the company, leaving a leading man, leading lady and two vaudevillian clowns.
Carter and Burton play the frantic clowns, Brittany Vicars portrays three women characters and Robert Petkoff plays only one role — the dashing hero who must elude various villains after a mysterious woman is murdered in his West End flat.
While just one role seems a relatively easy assignment, Petkoff has to dash across the top of a moving train, dangle from a bridge and generally sprint across England and Scotland.
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from Hitchcock's espionage film, the play lifts lines directly from the film and has winks to other Hitchcock movies such as "Rear Window," ''The Birds" and "Strangers on a Train."
Barlow usually writes plays for two people — improbably, a two-man "The Charge of the Light Brigade" and two-person "Wagner's Ring Cycle" — so he says penning the script for four actors was "a bit if a luxury."
Director Maria Aitken, a former Royal Shakespeare Company actress, needed a bit more coaxing. "I was sent the script, which I threw across the room," she said.
"I thought, 'Why would anyone want to do this with four people?' But, you know, it kind of stuck in my head. It was almost like a crossword puzzle — there was a challenge to solve."
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 over three years, before going off-Broadway for less than a year, closing in 2011. It has played in 47 countries.
Producer Douglas Denoff said there are many reasons the show remains an international hit, including the popularity of Hitchcock, the show's clever staging and the fact that it isn't dependent on a big name.
"The show is the star and the theatricality is the star," he said. "You can see it 100 times every night of the week and never get tired of it."
The new production opening this month at the Union Square Theater welcomes the return of Burton, who played a clown for close to 1,000 performances on Broadway and off. He said muscle memory has taken over.
"I would find we'd be in rehearsal and my body would start doing something that I'd completely forgotten. My hand would start moving and I'd go, 'Oh yeah! I used to do this,'" he said. "The show just has so much joy in it. Really, it's an homage to the theater."
Carter had never seen "39 Steps" when he auditioned and asked advice from some actor friends who had appeared in it. They told him he simply had to do it, that it would ask him to use all his skills.
"Particularly if you're a character actor, it's a bit of golden nugget, really," he said. "It has a big box of toys, hats and funny walks and funny voices and wigs."
Speaking of that, no one in the production will say exactly how many roles there are in total. Aitken said it's too hard, since some actors play big crowds (aided by cardboard cutouts) and the clowns play an entire Scottish marching band.
"The real figure is not actually available," she said with a smile.