April 13, 2015

Silliness, it would appear, has been gravely undervalued as a survival strategy. How else to explain the unquenchable life — or rather lives, for there have been many — of Richard Hannay, the charmingly fatuous fop who keeps defying death all over the world and has now returned to fight bad guys with bad accents in New York at the Union Square Theater? That is where “39 Steps,” the larky play in which Hannay appears, opened on Monday night. And, yes, those of you with eagle eyes and sharp memories, that is the correct title. Never mind that when Hannay appeared on Broadway in 2008, saying and doing almost exactly the same thing as now, it was under the rubric of “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps.” Or that when he showed up in 2006 in London’s West End — where he continues to wreak merry havoc in a production that picked up the Olivier Award for best comedy — the show was called “John Buchan’s ‘The 39 Steps.’ ” Like a proper British acquaintance who finally feels you’ve known him long enough to call him by an abbreviated form of his full name, “39 Steps” has shed even its “the” for this reincarnation. If it has also shed a little of the freshness of its first youth, it remains indomitably funny. This century’s most tireless and high-profile example of the little show that could, “39 Steps” was (according to the official credits) adapted from Buchan’s 1915 novel about dastardly espionage in a sleeping Britain. But in its shape, characters and dialogue, it is far closer to Hitchcock’s wonderful 1935 film version, which took more liberties with Buchan than a sailor on shore leave with his one-night stand.