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Film director Alfred Hitchcock supposedly first named the concept of a MacGuffin, which he described as “the thing that the spies are after but the audience don’t care.” Spoiler alert: The title of the play The 39 Steps refers to a spy cabal intent on evil-doing and perpetuating a “master race.” But all that global conspiracy stuff is barely glanced at, and it ultimately doesn’t matter much, when it comes to following or enjoying the play. With more than enough real-world conspiracies to dwell on, it’s a fun reprieve that The 39 Steps, based on the Hitchcock thriller of the same name, treats its shadowy organization as the ultimate MacGuffin, and its spy stuff as a mere backdrop for a spirited farce.
The hook may be the upending of classic film noir, but the play hinges on a gimmick wherein three of the four actors play multiple characters, often within a single scene, assuming new personas with onstage jacket switching and mustache fastening. This lends the show the fizzy energy of an improv show or something thrown together by neighborhood kids, but with the polish and tight choreography of a cast that knows how to sell a joke, and a restrained production that allows them to shine.
Though the nail-biting suspense is replaced with spot-on comedic timing, the plot follows the 1935 movie fairly faithfully. Richard Hannay (Drew Kopas)’s evening at the theater is cut short when the mysterious Annabella Schmidt (Patricia Hurley, who’ll be back to play two other lovely lasses) fires a gun as a diversion. She sneaks home with him, telling him she’s a spy who is in grave danger since she’s uncovered a ploy by the 39 Steps to steal military secrets. The next morning, Annabella is fatally stabbed with a knife in her back, forcing Hannay to go on the run to avoid being framed for her murder, and to get to the bottom of this dastardly conspiracy.
Without spoiling the twists and turns of the plot too much, the rest of Hannay’s journey entails an impromptu political rally, stops at several quaint countryside locales, a criminal mastermind missing part of his pinky, a sheep-related traffic jam, an odd couple handcuffed together, and a man with nearly superhuman powers of memory. These absurd misadventures and roving settings keep the action and the dialogue moving at a speedy clip, and also provide plenty of memorable scenes, kooky caricatures, and delightful sight gags. The humor can at times veer into extreme dad joke territory, but the lines are delivered with such self-aware earnestness that they earn genuine laughs. Gwen Grastorf and Christopher Walker, who as the Cast of Dozens play all the other characters besides Richard and his femmes fatales, are a riot as they buzz around the stage juggling props, costumes, and accent changes.
Constellation’s scenic design demonstrates a knack for working within the constraints of a small space, and the low-key, stripped back aspects of the production keep the feel intimate. A.J. Guban’s set is embellished with nested archways and nooks and allows for endless scene shuffling. Sabrina Mandell’s costuming is era-appropriate but vibrant and evocative. Several shadow puppet sequences are particularly effective, both as a way to cleverly convey the long distances that Richard traverses, as well as some memorably laugh-out-loud imagery.
Silver screen aficionados will recognize the strains of scores from other Hitchcock films and other nods to the master’s work, and even those who’ve never seen a noir film will still get a laugh out of cheeky callouts, like one character imploring another to exit through “the rear window.” The fondness for the era of film noir and Hitchcock is apparent throughout, and the familiar rhythms of those films are lovingly sent up, without devolving into satire or heavy-handed moralizing about the geopolitical machinations mentioned in the plot. By the end, the dashing hero has gotten (one of) the girl(s), the mystery is solved, and many laughs have been had—and all that conspiracy business is mere MacGuffin after all.
To March 15 at 1835 14th St. NW. $25–$45. (202) 204-7741. constellationtheater.org.
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