‘The 39 Steps’ by the St. Mark’s Players is a delightfully crafty, if uneven production

First things first for those expecting an honest adaptation of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 spy thriller of the same name. This latest production by the St. Mark’s Players might benefit from a clarification: The 39 Steps: A Farce, is more like it. Adapted by Patrick Barlow and first staged on Broadway in 2008, this highly ambitious meta-mockery of all things Hitchcock is less an homage to the film than its deconstruction by the tools and tricks of the theater. Sprawling action is condensed in this theatrical rendering to a single stage with set pieces and props whizzing in and out; but most impressively, a sizable cast is whittled down to four actors, half of which perform quadruple duty. Under the direction of Ashley Holmes, the Players swing for the fences with such challenging material. The results are wildly uneven, which is not to deny the team’s craftiness and its attendant delights.

Casey Ewell, Dan Lavanga, and Noah Rich in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo by Oscar Alvarez.

The performance opens with one Richard Hannay (Noah Rich), a man looking back at his part in solving the mystery behind the “39 steps.” By bad (or good?) fortune, Hannay is swept up into a world of military secrets and German spies. A fateful night at the theater has him entangled with German seductress Annabella Schmidt (Mary Patano), who clings to the pencil-mustachioed Hannay for safe haven from an unknown duo of bad guys. But when the damsel is murdered in cold blood in Hannay’s apartment, the bewildered Brit goes on the run in search of the true assailants while the authorities attempt to track him down.

So begins the multi-location adventure, which takes all sorts of directions: train getaways, magic shows, and high-society fêtes. Kudos to Courtney Elkin’s wheel-away prop design for snappy scene changes, and lighting by Roger Munter, who lends the stage a bit of noir panache while making the space seem much larger than it actually is. Sound designer Heather Cipu is critical to the show’s comic timing and its ability to convincingly pull off location changes with minimal indicators otherwise. So much of the show’s delights is premised on its clever minimalism: Hannay grabbing a rectangular frame and stepping through it to indicate an escape through the window; a cocktail party in full swing cued by music and confetti lights whenever a door is opened. 

So too does the play rely on meta-humor that acknowledges its own scrappy artifice: two actors (Casey Ewell and Daniel Lavanga) play dozens of different roles, sometimes multiple ones within the same scene (an impressive, tongue-twisting feat of sorts). Half-assed costume changes and accents leaked from past characters onto the next are some such built-in slip-ups meant for the laughs, but when accents are uneven in the first place, it’s hard to tell what’s intentional and what’s not. This is especially the case with newcomer Patano, whom I only realized was attempting to sound German halfway through her shtick as Annabella. The two “clowns” (Ewell and Lavanga) pull off some characters much more successfully than others, which gives the production the perhaps unwanted impression of a variety show with a share of hits and misses. Though Ewell’s incomprehensible innkeeper and aged political bureaucrat are particularly satisfying entries.

As man-on-the-run Richard Hannay, Noah Rich benefits from genuinely looking the part of the square-jawed Hitchcockian everyman, and his appropriately goofy physical humor matches the play’s mockery of such macho cut-outs. His few extended monologues — particularly one behind a campaign podium in which he shifts from apprehensive to impassioned (an encapsulation of his changing attitudes in the play at large) — are refreshing reprieves from the constant back and forths of the play otherwise. Too bad Hannay’s pigeonholed into a romance with the uptight Margaret (Patano again). Were it not for overtly maudlin musical cues and the trappings of the genre, I wouldn’t have guessed the two would end up together — so flat is their chemistry. 

Mary Patano and Noah Rich in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo by Oscar Alvarez.

Or is it supposed to ring false and poke fun at impassioned men and women in the preposterous conditions set out in sundry classic films? Probably not, though the play’s slippery nature does have its advantages. One particular scene has a bickering Hannay and Margaret linked by handcuffs, and when midway the chains break, I, for one, wrote it off as part of the production’s meta-commentary. Only later when the couple emerges re-cuffed did I realize it was not part of the act; Rich plays it off well with a quick “they don’t make ‘em like they used to” and the two actors continue the scene hands locked. Such improvisation blends neatly into the play’s modus operandi, and while the St. Mark’s Players don’t hit all the notes, their effort is a noble one — and a breeze to watch. 

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15 minute intermission

The 39 Steps plays through October 26, 2019, at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church, 301 A Street SE, Washington DC. Tickets may be purchased at the box office or online


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