Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.
The 39 Steps
The 39 Steps, now at Olney Theatre Center's Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab in the Maryland suburbs of Washington, is a showcase of acting for its own sake. As adapted by Patrick Barlow from a novel by John Buchanand, more to the point, Alfred Hitchcock's 1935 film version of the storythis story of mistaken identity and international espionage becomes a celebration of the transformative power of theater. It's also a zany farce.
Director Clay Hopper has brought together four versatile performers, of whom three bring to life a dizzying succession of characters who affect the life of the fourth. That is Richard Hannay (Jeffries Thaiss), an archetypal Hitchcock protagonist: a man in the wrong place at the wrong time, forced to flee the police after being accused of a crime he didn't commit.
The innate theatricality of the production is obvious from the first look at the black-box space. Chairs and costume pieces hang from the walls; a thin red curtain is suspended from a wire strung diagonally across the stage area; and the shape-shifting actors billed simply as Clown 1 (Jason Lott) and Clown 2 (Evan Casey) set the scene through pantomime and mugging.
The action begins when Hannay goes to a London music hall (he takes a seat among the audience members) and encounters Annabella Schmidt (Susan Lynskey), a dark, mysterious beauty in an elaborately embroidered gown. She enlists his help as she tries to track down something called "The 39 Steps," but circumstances soon force Hannay to head for Scotland, running into a range of characters from a retired professor to a crusty Scottish farmer and his young wife, from guests at a political rally to fellow passengers on board a train. Yes, they're all played by the same three actors, slipping from one accent to another as easily as they change hats (and, in the case of Lynskey, wigs).
As important as the performanceswhich are continuous through the entire play and also include rearranging the pieces of Cristina Todesco's scenic designis the overall method of presentation. JJ Kacznyski's projections add a (black-and-white) cinematic depth to some scenes, along with Nicholas Houfek's imaginative lighting design and Alex Neumann's sound design, and Pei Lee's costumes are both serviceable and often hilarious in their own right. One note: while some of the gags are obvious, much of the humor depends on familiarity with Hitchcock's work.
Olney Theatre Center