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Stage"Steps" How do you put a Hitchcock thriller onstage? It helps to hire a certified chameleon like Arnie Burton.
By now Broadway audiences are used to seeing popular films adapted for the stage, particularly into musicals. The 39 Steps, which begins performances on Jan. 4 at the American Airlines Theatre, is something completely different: A lithe, funny, four-actor staging of Alfred Hitchcock's 72-year-old classic film thriller, which involves a chase across the Scottish highlands and a fight on the top of a moving train.

Wait a sec--how the heck are they going to do that on stage with just four actors? For starters, make sure one of them is the endlessly versatile Arnie Burton, a specialist in David Ives comedies (All in the Timing, Mere Mortals) who's also done time in such multicharacter pieces as The Mystery of Irma Vep, I Am My Own Wife and Greater Tuna.

"I know the joys of Velcro," says Burton, who, along with Cliff Saunders and Jennifer Ferrin, plays multiple roles in support of leading man Charles Edwards. "I'm used to having dressers rip costumes on and off me and tell me who I am as I run out onstage."

This prompting came in handy one night at Boston's Huntington Theatre, where this stateside Steps, a version of a still-running West End hit, recently had its out-of-town tryout. "I jumped a character--I was changing into a milkman, and they were saying, 'No, no, no, you're a spy!' " Burton recalls with a laugh. "So they had to rip the milkman costume off me in a hurry and dress me as the spy."

Burton also plays the piece's villain, a sinister professor known for one physical peculiarity: He's missing the end of one pinkie finger.

"You'd be amazed by what I'm able to do with my hand," Burton boasts. "When I went in for my audition, they said, 'None of the actors have been able to do that with their little finger.' I guess the others had to hold it against their chest to make it look like part of their finger was gone, but I'm somehow able to manipulate my finger and keep it there. It's one of my special talents!"

This kind of simple, low-tech trickery is part of the fun of this adaptation, by Patrick Barlow and the director Maria Aitken. The stage design resembles a theatre's backstage, and though Burton jokes "we have almost every fog machine in the New York area," the show achieves most of its special effects with just lighting and sleight of hand.

"I think that's one of the reasons has been so successful," Burton says. "There's something that people love about the pure theatre of it--they're not being fooled. They're asked to play along. The concept is almost like it's a scrappy little theatre company that wants to do The 39 Steps, and of course the leading man isn't going to want to move furniture or change character, so the rest of us are kind of put-upon to enact the rest of the film."

The film's most famous screwball-comedy device is the handcuffing together of its attractive but initially unfriendly romantic leading man and woman. A good portion of the film's action involves these two unequally, and unhappily, yoked protagonists being chased within an inch of their lives--mistakenly, of course. The results are both deliciously comic and erotic.

They are even more laughs in director Aitken's staging, as Burton explains.

"There's a chase scene where the two leads are being pursued, and Cliff and I become all the impediments: We become a bog, we become a bush. The audience loves it; it puts them almost in a childlike state of wonder." Not to mention that "all my early acting exercises playing inanimate objects came in handy--I never thought they would, but I guess the acting teacher was right!"

The rich paradox of this production, according to Burton, is that while it's an homage to the cinema, and in particular to Hitchcock's shimmering black-and-white classic, it's also a "valentine to the theatre, and to what you can only do in the theatre."

This hits a sweet spot for Burton, who, though he's done his share of on-camera work, remains "a theatre geek since my early days in Idaho." Even then, raised on a farm, his dreams wandered elsewhere.

"I always dreamed of New York and the theatre, even before I knew what they were," Burton recalls. "We had no neighbors for miles, and so I always felt the urge to live in a place where people are crowded in on all sides of you. And there was no theatre to speak of there then, but I always dreamt of the theatre. I don't know where it came from."

You can file that as a mystery--and, based on Burton's description and advance reviews, you can put The 39 Steps in that magical, category-defying place between comedy, thriller and pure theatrical experience.

For more information about The 39 Steps, go here.