‘The 39 Steps’ at Constellation: a walk on the hilarious side

For an evening of dry wit and sophisticated, subtle humor, make your way…Oh forget it. Just come to Constellation Theatre’s The 39 Steps for a couple hours of cheesy lines, old situations, new complications, stunning surprises, cunning disguises, movie allusions, and some of the most intricate physical comedy you’re ever likely to see.

Patricia Hurley and Drew Kopas in 'The 39 Steps' at Constellation Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Patricia Hurley and Drew Kopas in ‘The 39 Steps’ at Constellation Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Adapted by Patrick Barlow from a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock movie of the same name, the show’s plotline (which Hitchcock liked so well he largely recycled it for North by Northwest) begins by introducing our hero, Richard Hannay (the very graceful Drew Kopas), a young man with wavy dark hair and smoldering brown eyes, at loose ends in his London flat. Into his life walks an alluring woman of mystery, Annabella Schmidt (Patricia Hurley, a slinky brunette in a black, off-one-shoulder, slinky dress), who shortly exits the story, but not before giving him a clue that sends him off on a dangerous and intrepid quest.

On the lam from both the police and the devious cabal known as the 39 Steps (trying to smuggle secrets about a new military aircraft engine out of the country, which serves as the story’s MacGuffin), Hannay heads for Scotland, where Annabella’s clue leads him. Along the way, he encounters an alluring stranger on a train, Pamela (Hurley again, this time as a blonde, suggesting Tippi Hedren on a bad hair day), wrapping her into an elaborate kiss to distract the police.

The police? And vaudeville performers, hotel keepers, villains, henchmen, dour Scots, trainmen, miscellaneous officials, and pre-show announcers telling patrons to turn off their cell phones, among many others. All are played by the “cast of dozens,” Gwen Grastorf and Christopher Walker, who contain multitudes, and whose entrances, exits, accents, genders, and frequent rapid costume changes are a whirlwind of delight.

Christopher Walker, Gwen Grastorf, Drew Kopas, and Patricia Hurley in 'The 39 Steps' at Constellation Theatre Company. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.
Christopher Walker, Gwen Grastorf, Drew Kopas, and Patricia Hurley in ‘The 39 Steps’ at Constellation Theatre. Photo by Cameron Whitman Photography.

Every aspect of the production is as happily active and precise as the acting. A.J. Guban’s flexible set includes pieces (door and window units, a bed and hotel desk unit, wooden chairs) that actors move about, and features a white curtain drawn across the stage from time to time onto which silhouettes are projected. We get to see the shadow of an airplane attacking Hannay, or the head of a Hitchcock-like figure as the second act begins with a snatch of “Funeral March of the Marionettes” playing in the background. Gordon Nimmo-Smith’s sound design, from the pre-show jazz to movie-score like romance and anxiety mood music to gunshots, is perfectly calibrated to every moment.

The only actor who never gets a costume change is Kopas, in an attractive brown suit throughout, and Hurley gets very different looks for each of her three characters. But the real costume fun in the show is for Grastorf and Walker, and designer Sabrina Mandell outfits them with clothes that not only make the varied characters clear but are practical, able to be switched at a moment’s notice. Neat trick. The backstage workers who helped the actors with the changes got a curtain call; they deserved it.

The references to Hitchcock’s movies add to the fun. Hannay, someone notes, escaped out a rear window. Which way did he go? North by northwest. The airplane silhouette attacking Hannay was not a crop duster, but who cares?

Director Nick Olcott, with the assistance of movement director Mark Jaster and fight and intimacy coordinator Jenny Male, masterminded this marvelously detailed theatrical device, delivering each comic moment with perfect timing and just the right degree of knowing wink. Save for a brief lull as Hannay and Pamela try to figure out their relationship in the second act, the antic pace takes the audience briskly from one laugh to another. I’d have loved to be a fly on the wall of the rehearsal process that led to the final, quite wonderful result.

Speaking of the 1935 film, screenwriter Robert Towne called it the font of all contemporary escapist entertainment. “Most ‘pure’ movie thrillers, especially when you think of Hitchcock,” he said, “are either fantasies fulfilled or anxieties purged. The 39 Steps is one of the few, if not the only one, that does both at the same time. He puts you into this paranoid fantasy of being accused of murder and being shackled to a beautiful girl—of escaping from all kinds of harm, and at the same time trying to save your country.” The play version, as presented by Constellation, does all that in a package that, as Olcott says in his program note, is “ridiculously adventurous and entertaining.”

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, including one intermission.

The 39 Steps plays through March 15, 2020, at Constellation Theatre, 1835 14th Street NW, Washington DC. For tickets, call 202-204-7741 or go online.


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