I haven’t written much about the rehearsals for The Thirty-Nine Steps, mostly because I was typing away on that ridiculous Elvis Costello post, but also because I haven’t much to say. It’s complicated to stage, and a lot of fun, but nothing that has inspired rumination.
So, here’s a random thing from the preparation. Oh, this is probably a spoiler, in a sense—not in a plot sense, but then knowing the plot in advance of seeing this wouldn’t spoil the experience in any way, I think. No, I’m going to talk in some detail about a bit of physical comedy, which (a) if you read this and then come see the thing, will likely spoil the humor of the joke, as I will reveal the end, or the sort of punchline, of the bit, and (2) there’s at least a chance that we’ll alter the bit or take it out entirely sometime over the next month, so it’s possible you will be perplexed that it doesn’t actually occur. So, yeah, if you’re thinking of coming to the production (in Central Connecticut, mid-to-late August) probably it’s best to skip the rest of this note. You can read it afterward. I promise.
Anyway. Here’s the bit, in the published stage directions:
(One of the clowns appears. MR. DUNWOODY Master of Ceremonies. Fussy and doddery, he carries a chair)
(HANNAY [the lead, mostly a straight man -V.] runs on breathlessly.)
HANNAY: Excuse me! I wonder if you can help me I’m afraid I’m-
DUNWOODY: With you in a minute!!
HANNAY: Right! Absolutely! Can I help?
DUNWOODY: No thank ye.
HANNAY: The thing is you see–
DUNWOODY: If you don’t mind!
(MR. D places the chair at the side of the stage.)
DUNWOODY: There we are now.
That’s it. Not a heck of a lot to go on, really, is it? There’s clearly got to be a gag there, part of which is establishing Dunwoody’s fussiness and dodderosity and part of which is thwarting Hannay’s breathless urgency.
I should add a quote from the adapter’s forward:
I have included most of my original stage directions and scenic ideas that I wrote before the play went into its first production in 2005. While it would be good to keep to the text on the page (much of it is from the original Hitchcock [sic] screenplay), I would certainly encourage adventurousness and flexibility in staging. Don’t be bound by the instructions on the page. Just take what looks helpful and then invent the rest.
So, the first thing is that, for practical reasons, Mr. Dunwoody (I play Mr. Dunwoody) is bringing on a rolling cart sort of thing, rather than a chair. This piece, about waist height, perhaps two feet long and about a foot deep, gliding on nearly silent casters, is used throughout the play, as a kitchen cabinet, a drinks bar, a hotel counter, a lectern and, er, maybe just those. Maybe it’ll show up on the train as well; we have time. Anyway. Somebody else brings in the chair, later.
My first instinct was to indicate feebleness by having a difficult time pushing (and/or pulling) the thing into place. Man losing struggle with inanimate object is a very solid gag. I tried it out; I didn’t like it. I’m not entirely sure why; partially I am simply not limber enough any more (or perhaps strong enough) to do the needful for such a gag. I can’t reliably get a leg up onto the cart and hop along with it; I can’t push with both feet whilst hanging on with one hand; I can’t slide to the floor under the wheels—not and come up again and do it all over the next night. Another issue (less ego-damaging) is that the bit can’t end with Dunwoody losing to the cart, since the cart needs to be down center later in the scene.
Well, that was my first instinct, and it didn’t work. Put that aside… I found a walk for Dunwoody. There are two basic walks for Comedy Old Men: the hunch and the stump. I don’t actually know what other people call them, but that’s what I call them: the hunch and the stump. The hunch is the bent-over curled-up one, leading with the shoulders and head (and sometimes the hands). My opposite clown (who comes in a few lines after this bit I’m discussing, bringing the chair that I don’t bring in) took to the hunch for his version. When I saw that, I naturally chose the stump: shoulders and head back, pelvis forward, leading with the knees which are kept bent but stiff. I call it the stump because of the tiny steps, stumping along stiffly with the torso kept immobile. I’m basing mine on, oh, one of the Bill Irwin old men, one of the Edward Petherbridge old men, my father, a few other things. If we get it right, when the two clowns face each other, the hunch and the stump make a lovely stage picture.
Well, anyway. I found a walk, and then I immediately found the way to push the cart on. It’s on casters, right, and about waist height, and when I’m drawn down into the stump walk it’s closer to the top of my rib cage. So Dunwoody uses it as a walker. Push it forward six inches, step forward six inches, lean on the cart, push it forward another six inches, step forward another six inches, lean on the cart, sigh, push it forward another six inches. All the while Hannay is dancing foot to foot, getting increasingly nervous. That’ll work. It’s not a physical gag any more, not really, but it’s funny and visual.
Then naturally arises the question of how to put a button on it—how do we end the bit and transition to the next (dialogue-driven) bit? I was enamored from the beginning of having the cart slide out from Dunwoody, leaving him clinging and off-balance. I had difficulty making it work, though. I think my core muscles are simply not strong enough, at this point in my life, to do the thing that I imagined— the cart rolling forward (from my point of view, from the audience it slides left to right) with my hands on it and my toes remaining where they are, until I am fully outstretched diagonally. I was able to do that twice, and it hurt for days. I don’t think I’m going to be able to get into that kind of shape over the next month, and trying it without building up the muscles first risks putting myself out of commission for days if not the duration of the show. No, that won’t work. So I have been trying to think of something else.
My discovery—and I haven’t actually tried this out with the cart itself yet—is that the sideways stretch uses very different muscles than the forward stretch (when you think about it, of course it does) and I can do the sideways lean. I don’t think it’s as funny, taken as a still picture, but it’s still pretty funny. I think the bit has to run like this: Push, step, push, step, sigh. Push, step, push, step, sigh. Push, step. Examine the location. Turn to the audience, sigh with satisfaction, lean and slide. I’ll need to work with the fellow playing Hannay, of course, both to figure out how to best to milk the first bit for his laughs and how to time the slide so that he rescues me at the ideal moment (after it’s funny, before it’s injurious).
For those of you that haven’t worked on a show of this kind, this really is the kind of attention that we give to a bit of physical business of this kind. I mean, this is a biggish one, in the sense that it’s ten or even fifteen seconds long, but we try to work on the two-second bits in much the same way, only compressed. From text in the playscript, figure out what the bit is, what it’s conveying and what is funny about it (usually the same thing, but not always), try your first instinct and see if it works; see what the other actors/crew have come up with, try another idea and see if it works, put a button on it.
That was the last time I spoke with President Trump,