By Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor Published Jan 20, 2011 at 1:01 PM

There is a delicious irony within "The 39 Steps," the giggle-a-minute comedy opened by the Milwaukee Rep last weekend. The play uses the movies to illustrate an abiding strength of live theater.

First some background. Scottish author John Buchan wrote a spy thriller titled "The 39 Steps" in 1915 when Europe was embroiled in World War I. The novel was popular with British soldiers in the trenches.

Several film adaptations, an English television version and a stage drama were spawned by the book. Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 movie "The 39 Steps" is the highest profile progeny.

Patrick Barlow, using a concept credited to Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon, wrote yet another theatrical take on "The 39 Steps" a few years ago, and it won the prestigious Olivier Prize in London in 2007. A year later the show was awarded the best play Tony in New York, and now it is on the Rep's Quadracci Powerhouse Theater stage at the Milwaukee Center.

The genius of the Barlow version is that it employs the irresistible charms of smart theatricality to stage the Hitchcock movie, not the book. Four actors play more than 150 characters from the film, and with low-tech props and set pieces they humorously re-create the flick's scenes and locations.

It's a classic example of doing more with less, thanks to imaginative stagecraft. Much of our amusement comes from being allowed to see how the illusions, some of them rather cheesy, are pulled off. Everyone in the audience becomes a theatrical insider being offered and getting the joke.

Barlow's satiric script makes sly references to other films in the Hitchcock canon, and that adds to the infectious fun.

How can you not be tickled by the sudden appearance of the "North by Northwest" crop duster, portrayed by a shadow puppet?

The plot, involving a wrong man on the run and mysterious sinister forces, is hardly important. We are watching a familiar novel and movie genre become an exercise in theatrical invention. It is half ingenious cleverness and half goofy silliness.

None of this can be achieved without superb acting and direction that precisely hits the proper tone. Mission accomplished in the Quadracci Powerhouse Theater.

As always, the Rep cast is first rate. The reliable Reese Madigan is the only actor who plays a single character, and with unflappable suaveness he nails the role of Richard Hannay, the innocent and intrepid wanted man.

Everyone else in the show is required to frequently switch characters, sometimes with a simple turn of the head. Those of us who have been treated to the comic acting career of Gerard Neugent know what to expect from him in these circumstances, and we are not disappointed.

Newcomer Helen Anker, a veteran of London's West End, is crisply focused and distinctly different in each of her roles. Her big time experience, including the recently closed revival of "Promises, Promises" on Broadway, is evident in her polish and bearing.

But the star of the Rep's "The 39 Steps" is John Pribyl, who made his debut at the American Players Theatre in Spring Green last summer after having spent years at the Oregon Shakespeare and Utah Shakespearean Festivals. Cross-dressing and cross-cutting among characters here, he gives the production an injection of comic rocket fuel with his slightly loony physicality.

Longtime Rep guest director J.R. Sullivan is the conductor of the craziness. He must make the show's split-second timing and controlled madness work flawlessly, and he does.

Sullivan has a lengthy history as a director in Wisconsin theater, with the American Players Theatre, Next Act Theatre, Milwaukee Chamber Theatre, Theatre X and many Milwaukee Rep productions on his resume. Since 2009 he has been the artistic director of the Pearl Theatre Company, an anomaly in the highly competitive and for-profit stage industry in New York. The non-profit Pearl mounts an annual season of classic plays with a resident acting company.

"It's much like the Milwaukee Rep," Sullivan recently said, although the Pearl's budget is significantly smaller. The company was in serious financial distress when Sullivan assumed its top artistic position, and he reports that it is gradually recovering its fiscal health.

While Sullivan has been in Milwaukee staging "The 39 Steps," former Rep artistic director Joseph Hanreddy has been in New York directing "The Misanthrope" at the Pearl.

Romulus Linney and Milwaukee

From the late 1970s to the mid-'90s, the prolific national playwright Romulus Linney spent considerable time in Milwaukee because his work was being regularly staged here. The first full production of his "Heathen Valley" was directed by Linney in the Milwaukee Rep's Stiemke Theater in 1988 before it went on to be named the outstanding new play of the year by the American Theatre Critics Association.

That was one of five Linney shows the Rep mounted in the Todd Wehr, Stiemke and Quadracci Powerhouse Theaters before the company commissioned him to write a new adaptation of "A Christmas Carol" for the Pabst Theater in 1996. Staying particularly faithful to Dickens' novella, the Linney version was a little too dark for the tastes of merry-making holiday audiences, and the Rep used it for only two seasons. We never saw Romulus Linney in Milwaukee again, and he died in Germantown, N.Y. last weekend at the age of 80.

I nominated "Heathen Valley" for the national critics prize it won, and I had the great fortune to get to know Linney a bit. He was under-appreciated as a writer because only one of his more than 30 plays was produced on Broadway. He was uncommonly wise and learned about nearly everything.

He was unusually kind. And oh yes, he was Laura Linney's father.

Damien Jaques Senior Contributing Editor

Damien has been around so long, he was at Summerfest the night George Carlin was arrested for speaking the seven dirty words you can't say on TV. He was also at the Uptown Theatre the night Bruce Springsteen's first Milwaukee concert was interrupted for three hours by a bomb scare. Damien was reviewing the concert for the Milwaukee Journal. He wrote for the Journal and Journal Sentinel for 37 years, the last 29 as theater critic.

During those years, Damien served two terms on the board of the American Theatre Critics Association, a term on the board of the association's foundation, and he studied the Latinization of American culture in a University of Southern California fellowship program. Damien also hosted his own arts radio program, "Milwaukee Presents with Damien Jaques," on WHAD for eight years.

Travel, books and, not surprisingly, theater top the list of Damien's interests. A news junkie, he is particularly plugged into politics and international affairs, but he also closely follows the Brewers, Packers and Marquette baskeball. Damien lives downtown, within easy walking distance of most of the theaters he attends.