There are many words to describe Arnie Burton, the multi-talented character actor who has quickly become the go-to man to perform numerous roles in one production, but "slacker" has never been one of them. When this reporter jokingly said it over lunch at Joe Allen's, Burton, mid-bite of a hamburger, burst into laughter.
Burton, who has numerous and varied roles, both on and Off-Broadway, under his belt, is quickly approaching his 1,000th performance in 39 Steps, the old-fashioned comedy inspired by the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name. He will hit the mark Sept. 28.
Billed in the program as "Clown 2," Burton brings more than 100 characters to life during the two-hour production, including a milkman, a female innkeeper, an entire marching band and elements of nature, including a bog. He moves among the characters at breakneck speed, changing costumes and wigs in a matter of seconds. After performing in the production for two years on Broadway after its 2008 opening, he returned to the show in 2015 for its Off-Broadway run at the Union Square Theatre.
"People always say, 'Do you ever get bored?'" he said of his time with the show. "It's one of these plays. It moves like a bat out of hell, and as one of the two clowns, you don't have a moment to sit backstage and go, 'God, I'm bored.' You just keep going. It forces you to be in the moment and kind of experience it. It's just a blast and for a character actor, it kind of doesn't get any better than that." Boasting a four-person cast and a few props, Patrick Barlow's play follows the madcap escapades of Richard Hannay, a British man who, after meeting a mysterious woman at a theatre, finds himself deep in the throes of a dangerous political conspiracy. Bored with upper-class life, he is thrilled with the adventures he embarks upon — and the cool Hitchcock blonde who accompanies him.
Fast-paced and filled with jokes, 39 Steps' humor was one of the elements that drew Burton back to the show after several years away from it, during which he appeared on Broadway in A Free Man of Color, Peter and the Starcatcher and Machinal, and Off-Broadway in The Mystery of Irma Vep and Lives of the Saints. "The humor is so loving in a way. Patrick Barlow's version doesn't trade in on sarcasm and irony and smart-a** mean humor at the expense of anything else. It's really the humor and these four people that are trying to put on this play the best that they can.
"Believe me, I like snarky humor as much as the next person, but it's kind of lovely to be in a play for two hours where the humor is generous and not at the expense of someone. 39 Steps is really kind of a valentine to the theatre. It's about what actors and a few props can do and imagination can do. And that's why I think the play has been so successful for so long. It's such a refuge for me to go there and not trade in that."
Theatre has served as a refuge to Burton since his childhood, when he lived on a farm in Idaho before moving to Arizona. A self-described introvert, he loved watching old horror films and "The Carol Burnett Show." It was when his two loves were combined on the show in a skit called "Rebecky" — spoofing Alfred Hitchcock's film "Rebecca," which presented a sense of community onstage — that Burton thought, "I want that," a desire that was fulfilled years later by 39 Steps.
"I was a shy kid and I didn't have friends, but they were this group of people that looked like they were having the best time with each other, and I thought, 'I want that,'" Burton recalled. "I remember the opening night of the original run [of 39 Steps], I thought, 'This is that.' All those old great suspense movies and I'm with three other people — the four of us that love each other and are having the best time. I'm kind of living my Carol Burnett old horror movie moment."
Burton's love for old film included Hitchcock, so he was well-versed in the cinema master's work prior to his audition for 39 Steps. Listing some of his favorite films as "The Birds," "The Man Who Knew Too Much" and "Rear Window," he said he thinks Hitchcock himself would love 39 Steps thanks to his "wicked sense of humor."
The humor in 39 Steps is fast and furious, and it's only funnier when mishaps take place onstage, something Burton is extremely familiar with. During a scene in which he plays an evil professor who is part of the master plan Hannay is attempting to stop, he enters the scene seated in an armchair on wheels that slides onstage out of the blue.
"I know I'll never have an entrance like that again," Burton said laughing. "That's why I wanted to do the show again. You don't get a better entrance than that."
Burton's chair has been the cause of several onstage mishaps, bouncing off of doorways or moving too slowly. But, he said, "it's great when a malfunction happens," because it offers him the opportunity to improvise.
While Burton said he loves being known as the "the guy to play a bunch of different characters," he would enjoy playing one person, with no costume changes or Velcro inside the clothing, at some point in his career. He credits his dresser with not only keeping him clothed but on target and in the correct character during the performances. "I remember when we did 39 Steps in Boston originally and this was maybe our third performance. I thought, 'I know the show now, I know where I'm going.' I said, 'I can do this one change by myself,' and I completely screwed up characters. My dresser was there to tell me, 'No, you're this character and this character' and hand me a bottle of water."
Burton's love for performing and imagination was first inspired at age four, when he saw "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." He recalled watching the movie and thinking, "What is that place? I want to go there."
"I didn't even know what New York was then," he said. "All I knew was wide-open spaces in Idaho. But I wanted to be in that place he was singing about. That was my first inkling of what theatre was about."
He made his stage debut in Hansel and Gretel, but even before that he was performing shows in his backyard, utilizing the garden hose and other household objects as his scenery. He recalls the simplicity of his childhood productions fondly, saying, "That's why those two plays [39 Steps and Peter and the Starcatcher] mean so much to me. It really goes back to the elemental reason why I discovered theatre in the first place: imagination and the kind of purity of that imagination. And I think that's why both shows have such a place in the audience's hearts."
"For me, because it took me a while to come out of myself, my mom always said she was so grateful for theatre. It made you connect with the world. It was my way of being able to connect to other people that I couldn't do socially. I'll always be grateful for that, too."
Burton's love for theatre is certainly steadfast; as he approaches his 1,000th performance of 39 Steps, he is already preparing for his next stage role in A Confederacy of Dunces, in Boston, MA, alongside Nick Offerman. But he's not counting the days until he says goodbye to 39 Steps; instead, he expressed gratitude for the experience of his lengthy turn in the show and what he has learned from performing in it.
"There's this phenomenon that happens when you do a long run, which I'd never experienced before," he recounted. "A year and a half into the original run, I blanked on a line. In the very opening, I come out and give a speech about Mr. Memory. I completely went blank. It was so hard to get back on track. That kind of haunted me for the rest of the run: Is it going to happen again? If something happens to your long-term memory or whatever, the words stop meaning anything unless you start investing in them again."
Following the night when he forgot his lines, Burton began setting challenges for himself to stay on target in his performances. "The kind of blessing of doing a long run is every performance is like an acting lesson," he said. "I always thought, 'Who would want to do a long run? Who would want to do the same thing over and over and over again?' But I think it's made me a better actor."
And, he'll be putting his skills to the test again soon; in A Confederacy of Dunces, Burton will also play numerous roles. In fact, he said, "I honestly can't think of the last play I did where I played one character from beginning to end."
(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)