"The 39 Steps" is the kind of silly show that goes for a laugh by playing three chords lifted from a hokey melodrama — bah, buh, BAAAAHHHH — when the play's title is mentioned.
And then it goes there again and again. And again.
Luckily, the game actors land nearly every joke they can. And the visual comic treats of the Orlando Shakespeare Theater production, directed by Jim Helsinger, help make up for a script that too often relies on repeating the same sort of gag or hoping a mangled Scottish accent will sound funny.
The show, adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow, is based on the Alfred Hitchcock thriller, which in turn was based on John Buchan's adventure novel of the same name. In the play, however, the preposterous plot is played for laughs.
Richard Hannay (Spencer Plachy) is a 1930s Brit, bored with life, when a mysterious woman swoops into his life and winds up murdered in his flat. He's suddenly a man on the run, trying to clear his name and prevent a "secret, top secret Air Ministry secret" from falling into enemy — read, German — hands.
Plachy has a plummy voice and a good air of comic surprise — and he does a swell version of a fall from a suspension bridge — but as the relative straight man among the mayhem he's overshadowed by his fellow actors. Deanna Gibson, in three female roles, brings a simple charm to downtrodden farmer's wife Margaret and icy outrage to the reluctant heroine, Pamela.
But it's Brad DePlanche and Brandon Roberts who have the showiest parts. With changes in hats, coats, accents and posture they shift character in the blink of an eye. And they deserve every bit of the cheers and applause they get.
In one span of about four minutes, DePlanche switches from a spy to a rambling cleaning woman to a perky railway traveler. (He also shines later on as a mumbling lecturer his baffled audience can't hear.)
And Roberts, who has plenty of physical- comedy experience with his PB&J Theatre Factory troupe, is in his element. His face flaps in the wind as he leans out a train's window as it chugs along a track. As the arch-villain, he wrings every ounce of comedic mileage out of a silly hat's tassel.
The best moments in the show are such visual treats: DePlanche and Roberts, as two loitering spies, running onto the stage with a giant lamppost to set the scene every time Plachy opens a window shade. Or the way Plachy's hand follows Gibson's seductively down her leg as she removes her stockings (they're handcuffed together.)
And perhaps the most fun gag: Cameos by Alfred Hitchcock, in silhouette of course, and a friend of the Loch Ness monster.
That's the best thing about this theatrical bit of fluff. As in life, when the script falls flat from time to time, the unexpected can have you laughing again.
Matthew J. Palm can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5038. Read his Orlando Theater Blog at OrlandoSentinelcom/theaterblog.
See for yourself
•What: 'The 39 Steps,' an Orlando Shakespeare Theater production of a Patrick Barlow play
•When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Also 2 p.m. senior matinees Wednesdays, Sept. 22 and Sept. 29. Through Oct. 10.
•Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
•Tickets: Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sunday matinees: $20-$34. Fridays and Saturdays: $26-$38. Senior matinees: $15. On Oct. 1, tickets are $20 for patrons younger than 30. Student rush tickets, $10, are available 30 minutes before showtimes.
•Info: 407-447-1700 or orlandoshakes.org