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First Nighter: The Schwartz-Almond 'Iowa,' The Good-Time '39 Steps'

04/14/2015 09:52 am ET | Updated Jun 14, 2015

Towards the end of the Jenny Schwartz-Todd Almond somewhat musical Iowa -- or Iow@, as the program has it -- four Mormon sister-wives in high-necked, long-sleeved, floor-length pastel dresses arrive to sing a song about the myriad woes of women in contemporary society. It goes on for maybe 15 minutes at the Playwrights Horizons Peter Sharp space.

As Carolina Sanchez, Cindy Cheung, Annie McNamara and April Mathis, eventually joined by Karyn Quackenbush, articulated the besetting circumstance in solos and in unison, the threnody packed quite a wallop. The sequence encapsulated everything Schwartz needed to say to make her dramatic point. Were it to stand alone, lyricist Schwartz and composer-lyricist Almond would be in good stead.

IMHO, as they say in online shorthand, the piece ought to stand alone, helped along, as it is, by Almond's shifting riffs. Nothing else in the 100-minute, intermissionless Schwartz-Almond play, directed by Ken Rus Schmoll, is nearly as effective. Indeed, I spent much of the long patch before the Mormon ladies sang wondering whether what I was sitting through was the most exasperating play I'd ever been exposed to.

I decided it wasn't. Nevertheless, I'd begun to despair shortly after Quackenbush as Sandy, a dizzy mother, launched into a stream-of-consciousness peroration/tirade that went on for ages with only a few interruptions from 14-year-old daughter Becca (Jill Shackner). One topic on which the cat-on-a-hot-tin-roof Sandy touched was her Iowa farmer/Facebook fiancé Roger, who occasionally threw in asides from her open and operating Apple computer.

Another statement she made was about Becca's being 12 years old and then was repeatedly corrected. By the way, Becca's much younger self is played by silver-voiced Kolette Tetlow, who opened the show sweetly with another Schwartz-Almond song.

Not too long after Sandy ceases her initial non-sequitur spouting, Schwartz -- author of God's Ear and Somewhere Fun, among others -- has Becca's only friend Amanda (Sanchez) wonder whether Auschwitz is a magazine like Vogue. How offensively unfunny is that? Schwartz also introduces a pony, played by sole male cast member Lee Sellars in hooves and tail. He sings a ditty with the lyric, "Ponies don't like to have girlfriends."

But why go on? Iowa does, and for most of the time to extremely little avail.
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39 Steps, which had quite an enjoyable run a few years ago, is back and at the Union Square Theatre. It's John Buchan's novel adapted by Patrick Barlow and played -- unlike the Alfred Hitchcock movie -- for laughs, along with the thrills.

Robert Petkoff is now Richard Hannay, the bored 39-year-old, whose tedium is cut short when a strange woman he's befriended is killed in his apartment, and he must prove he's not the murderer before the police catch up with him. The challenge involves locating a man with a joint missing from his little finger and also includes a music-hall performer known as Mr. Memory.

Arnie Burton, from the original Broadway cast, Billy Carter and Brittany Vicars play all the other characters and, under Maria Aitken's delightfully fast-paced direction, have no end of fun doing just that. The enjoyment is greatly heightened by Peter McKintosh's sets and costumes, Kevin Adams's lighting and Mic Pool's sound.

This 39 Steps is part of a growing number of spoofs, currently including the Kneehigh treatment of Noel Coward's Brief Encounter and Ken Ludwig's more recent Baskerville. They're all romps in which the original material is both honored and joshed. There's a great deal to be said for the amusement these enterprises provide actors, directors, designers and, most of all, audiences.