Earnest performances solve ‘The 39 Steps’ at Vienna Theatre Company

Dated jokes often don't land, but incredible actors give their all, and moments of excellent physical comedy make the show great.

The 39 Steps — a 1996 parodic adaptation for the stage by Patrick Barlow of Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film — has a lot going on. And at the Vienna Theatre Company, the show claims to feature 150 characters, all played by a cast of four: Joe Gallagher, who plays accidental-spy protagonist Richard Hanny; Jessie Duggan, who plays three parodies of the femme fatale trope throughout the show; and ensemble players Haydn Dollery, Kevin Lukacs, and Kim Paul, identified in the playbill as “clowns,” who each play a truly incredible number of characters.

When the VTC’s 39 Steps, co-directed by Katie and Nicholas Boone, is at its best, jokes fly by without making the audience sit with one for too long, and Joe Gallagher brings immersive acting skill to the fore. When the show falters, the key issues are the script taking too long to get to the punchline, milking one joke for too long, and slow-moving line delivery.

Joe Gallagher, Kim Paul, and Hayden Dollery in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo by Claire Tse.

The reason The 39 Steps and ultimately this production isn’t always successful is that the jokes often just don’t matter (or land). We don’t understand what they’re referencing because they’re referencing a film or book that audience members may not have seen, they were written in the ’90s for an audience not yet subjected to decades of beating the dead meta-humor horse, or the show takes swings at turns of phrase meant to be funny but don’t quite work and can’t be helped by earnest performances.

This is especially true of the show’s jokes about stock female characters whose supposed talkativeness or preference to not be involuntarily cuffed to a stranger makes them ridiculous. I certainly don’t demand that Duggan and Gallagher turn these moments into feminist manifestos, but given that these near-30-year-old jokes probably won’t land with today’s audiences, I think a clear angle of performance that took a clear stance on their content would have made them more entertaining, or at least thought-provoking.

Issues with the writing could have been helped significantly by performances that run through the jokes faster — not to cover up mediocre writing but so that they feel more naturally delivered and less presented, more acted and less read.

But these performances are indeed earnest. Joe Gallagher’s facial expressions, line delivery, and fully convincing performance as British Man Unwillingly Thrust Into Adventure (fans of The Hobbit will enjoy); these incredible actors giving their absolute all to succeed in those impossible feats of performance; and moments of excellent physical comedy make the show great.

TOP LEFT: Jessie Duggan Kevin Lukacs, and Joe Gallagher; TOP RIGHT: Kevin Lukacs, Joe Gallaher, and Haydn Dollery; ABOVE LEFT: Jessie Duggan and Joe Gallagher; ABOVE RIGHT: Kevin Lukacs, Kim Paul, Jessie Duggan, and Joe Gallagher, in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photos by Claire Tse.

While the content of the show isn’t the best, the sheer spectacle of effort of the cast and crew keeps you locked in. On top of the cast putting in gargantuan energy, costume designer Michelle Harris has pulled out all the stops, accurately and comedically decking out the show’s plethora of characters — making choices that signify different characters even within the same scene to great comedic effect. Sound designer Adam Parker’s contributions also aptly combine the comedic and realistic angles. The seemingly VTC-trademark visual projections at the back of the stage are a highlight of the show.

The 39 Steps is a committed effort from a devoted cast of this beloved long-running show, and I absolutely commend their clear love of the material and the British comedy medium. I can’t wait to see how they continue to explore it.

Running Time: Two hours, with one 15-minute intermission.

The 39 Steps plays through May 5, 2024, presented by Vienna Theatre Company performing at Vienna Community Center, 120 Cherry St SE, Vienna, VA. Tickets, priced at $16, are available online or in person at the venue.

COVID Safety: Wearing masks is optional.

The 39 Steps
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Katie and Nicholas Boone
Produced by Eric Storck

Joe Gallagher: Hannay
Jessie Duggan: Annabelle/Pamela/Margaret
Haydn Dollery: Clown
Kevin Lukacs: Clown
Kim Paul: Clown

Co-Director: Nick Boone
Co-Director: Katie Boone
Producer: Eric Storck
Stage Manager: Katie Boone
ASM: Charlie Boone
Lighting Designer: Ari McSherry
Set Designer: Adrienne Gammons
Sound Designer: Adam Parker
Costume Designer: Michelle Harris
Projections: Nick Boone
Set Dresser: Claire L. Tse
Properties Design: Claire L. Tse
Set Painting: Gammons
Set Construction: Charlie Boone
Program Design: Ann Hall
Graphic Design: Kaiya Keckler
Photographer: Jeff Storck
Lobby Display: Jocelyn Steiner


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