The 39 Steps, the hit Broadway comedy now on tour. Actor Scott Parkinson plays dozens of characters, both male and female, sometimes during the same scene in the fast-paced farce. Parkinson has played characters as different as the Stage Manager in Off-Broadway’s critically acclaimed Our Town and the scene-stealing Zygote, a misshapen comic clone, in Charles Busch’s hit The Third Story. Other GLBT-friendly roles include Prior Walter in Angels in America, Kenneth Tynan in Orson’s Shadow and his award-winning gender-bending performance as Queen Margaret in Rose Rage.
The 39 Steps was one of Hitchcock’s earliest hits, about Richard Hannay, a man who is roused from his apathetic midlife crisis when a beautiful spy literally falls into his arms. Unfortunately, she has a large knife in her back, and gasps an ominous warning about an evil entity known as "the 39 Steps". Hannay goes on the run to clear his name. It’s pre-WW II England, so the threats are very dire. Dire and hilarious, that is, since the actors use the simplest of set pieces, props and hats to recreate the film’s cross-country locales.
“There’s a back story to the show which is that there’s this provincial English theater company in the 30’s that is sort of low on funds and that is trying to resurrect the careers of some of its actors,” Parkinson explained. “So they decide to put on this production of The 39 Steps, but they only have four actors. The leading man plays just one role, and the leading lady plays all the female love interests, and then there are these two Vaudeville clowns who play every other part. I’m the villain, I’m an old lady Scottish innkeeper, and we take on inanimate objects as well. Whatever they need us to be, they throw us a costume and we’re it. We’re changing costumes right onstage in the blink of an eye, and that’s part of the fun of the evening.”
Parkinson enjoys the challenge of mastering The 39 Steps’ precise comedy every night in a run that’s longer than he’s used to. “It helps when the audiences are having a good time, because obviously we feed off of that energy.” He’s looking forward to returning to Tempe, the tour's next stop, after a run of shows in various southern locations, all of which had cold and rainy weather. “I love Arizona. My parents used to live in Mesa, so I’ve been out there a lot.”
He also loved working with Kathleen Turner and Busch in The Third Story. “I don’t get to do brand new plays very often that are world premieres,” he explained. “It was interesting to do something from the ground up and to watch Charles and Carl Andress (the director) really work and shape that script and to see what we learned from the production in La Jolla, the kind of changes that they made prior to doing the show in New York. To have a front row seat was endlessly fascinating to me. It was great to create this character that was just so bizarre,” he added, revealing that he envisioned the character “as sort of the love child of Vincent Price and Truman Capote” which he then layered with Sal Mineo’s vulnerable performance in Rebel Without a Cause. He loved working with Turner, who replaced Mary Beth Piel for the New York run. “She’s such a legend and she was such a trouper for us. She had some problems with her leg and had to miss a couple of performances, but she came right back and really brought a whole new and different energy to piece.”
Parkinson knows that GLBT audiences will love The 39 Steps. “It’s a very smart, a very literate piece ... it’s very humorous. I think the gay audience appreciates shows that are smart and funny and have a certain style to them. It’s a story about a man feeling “on the outside” in many ways and how he comes to a sense of belonging by the end of the play through his experiences. And there are some great dresses in it.”
The 39 Steps will be performed at ASU Gammage from April 20 to 25. For more information on the tour, including future dates and locations, visit the play's official website.
Interview by Neil Cohen, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Phoenix's Echo Magazine.