Theater Review: "The 39 Steps" at Olney Theatre Center

The spy thriller gets an engaging and entertaining staging in this farce-inspired production.

By: Jane Horwitz



With tongues planted firmly in cheeks, the four savvy actors in The 39 Steps, running at Olney Theatre Center through May 20, turn the classic espionage thriller into a pretty consistently delicious British-style farce. This reimagining of the 1935 Hitchcock film (and the 1915 novel by John Buchan on which it was based) originated in Britain in 2005, then made its way to London's West End and won the 2007 Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. Some Washington-area theatergoers may have caught the American touring company, which dropped briefly into the Warner Theatre two years ago. Or perhaps they saw it on Broadway in 2008 or '09. The show won Tony and Drama Desk Awards for design, as well as a Drama Desk nod as a "unique theatrical experience."

Don't extrapolate from all those big-time credits that Olney's production--performed in its 150-seat Mulitz-Gudelsky Theatre Lab--is somehow less of a kick. In some ways, having the actors clowning so close to the audience, and occasionally in the audience, may be more fun. When Evan Casey's Nazi spy, for example, finally kicks the bucket, he does it endlessly and hilariously, in an aisle, dying, dying, dying. When Jason Lott's music hall performer, Mr. Memory, squeezes the answer to a question out of his brain, his trancelike expression is googly-eyed and seems to be in close-up. When Susan Lynskey, in her first persona as slinky undercover agent Annabella Schmidt, expresses disdain for the London police, she stands right at the front row, spitting out in a splendidly bad German accent, "Ach! Za poleece--vis zeir boots und zeir vistles!"

Now and then, some of the slapstick schtick and nudge-nudge winks may be telegraphed a bit too far ahead, or executed a tad too laboriously, particularly in act two. Overall, though, the Olney production, nimbly staged by Clay Hopper and running about 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission, comes up a treat. The 39 Steps tweaks and twists Hitchcock's expressionistic and melodramatic movie, yet remains surprisingly faithful to it. It's also full of references both oblique and obvious to his other films. It's fun to try to catch them: Start with the rope hanging on the wall and the steamer trunks on the stage, and go from there.

Hopper is well served by his little ensemble, whose fourth member is Jeffries Thaiss as the somewhat reluctant protagonist, Richard Hannay. In a pencil mustache, tweeds, and a pipe, Thaiss, an Olney regular, nails just the right panache and wit for the stiff-upper-lip hero. Hannay is apparently British- or Scottish-born, but was raised somewhere in the Empire, perhaps Canada. Thaiss gives him a refined trans-Atlantic accent, which places him as a classy guy on either side of the pond.

In keeping with the farcical style in which the show was originally conceived, Olney's production is low-tech to a droll degree. The set (designed by Cristina Todesco) includes a casement window with an undependable pull shade and a wooden doorway, both of which can be rolled anywhere they're needed. The walls of the theater on all sides of the stage are hung with ordinary stuff--chairs, lampshades--old props from other shows, perhaps. In the train scenes, two steamer trunks double as seating and compartments, and projections of scenery whizz by on a sheet strung up as a movie screen. Two movable black ladders imply the girders of a railway bridge. The projections (designed by JJ Kaczynski) switch from horizontal to vertical when Hannay jumps off the bridge into the roiling waters of the Firth of Forth, and more than once the projections steal baldly and amusingly from other Hitchcock films.

Lott and Casey, billed as Clown One and Clown Two, respectively, play everyone not covered by Lynskey's three female roles or Thaiss's Hannay: leering lingerie salesmen, cops, train conductors, a Scottish couple running a hotel, a bespectacled Nazi agent and his wife, bumbling police inspectors, and doddering old men. During the train sequence, they alternate between cops and conductors, donning and shedding hats and jackets at breakneck speed.

Credit costume designer Pei Lee for the high and low 1930s fashions. The lighting by Nicholas Houfek and sound by Alex Neumann adds to the fun, with shadows and fog, spotlights, train whistles, gunshots, foreboding music, and the sense that this high-end spoof remains, as it was always intended to be, a salute to live theater, but without hydraulic stages and "flying" superheroes. If you're curious how faithful this spoof is to Hitchcock's film, check it out on Hulu and be surprised. Olney's production and the film make a nice double feature.

The 39 Steps is at Olney Theatre Center through May 20. Tickets ($26 to $54) are available through Olney's website.