‘The 39 Steps’ at NextStop Theatre Company by Terry Byrne


Live theater is thrilling. How better, then, to celebrate the remaking of the volunteer-sown Elden Street Players into a major professional troupe than with a remake of a film from thrill master Alfred Hitchcock? Hmm, not what you might have thought? Fasten your seatbelts.

Emily Levey and James Finley. (Photo by Rebekah Purcell, VISION).
Emily Levey and James Finley. (Photo by Rebekah Purcell, VSION).

The 39 Steps (1935) was one of the more ludicrous capers in Hitchcock’s vault. Hitched to Patrick Barlow’s Monty Python-inspired adaptation Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, the NextStop Theatre Company pulls out all the stops for a non-stop night of mirth and mayhem.

The plot riffs on the ol’ man-of-mistaken-identity mess, in which Richard Hannay (a jolly good James Finley) gets entangled in a conspiracy after a sexy spy follows him home from the theater, spills her secrets and blood, and he winds up traipsing across the Scottish moors as both hunter and hunted.

Lucky for me, Cozi TV aired the original film noir the night before opening or I could not have fully appreciated how clever was the concept, which Barlow curated from fellow Brits Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon. Using most of the raw material from the movie – and borrowing from every other Hitchcock hit — it lampoons the Master of Suspense’s style with cut-throat satire. Hitchcock, himself, was a bit of a clown, albeit a scary clown.

But it’s Director Evan Hoffmann (Herndon homeboy and NextStop’s Producing Artistic Director), along with the show’s four consummate comedic actors, who not only hit their mark but score a win for stagecraft over moviecraft.

Movies are canned entertainment – watching one, you enter a passive, altered state. But a live theater audience is an elite group of folks witnessing something no one else has experienced quite like it before and never will again (no videotaping or recording of any kind, remember). It’s raw, juicy, organic, interactive. And totally unpredictable, because things don’t always go as rehearsed.

According to the study guide of this work, which is being revived off-Broadway this fall/winter: “the brilliance is often in the creation of a lot from very little, so that with minimal set or costume (or indeed cast), complex or even epic stories can be both hilariously and movingly told. This is achieved through fearless engagement with the audience, and a full embracing of theatricality. (Often things go deliberately wrong; actors come out of role momentarily to give the audience or another performer a look). This is a knowing, self-reflexive approach to theatre that says “Look, we know we’re in a theatre, and we know you’re there, so let’s just have a good time shall we?” This has strong roots in the theatrical tradition, from the comic asides of pantomime, Victorian melodrama and Elizabethan drama.”

In other words, the audience is complicit. And things went deliciously awry on opening night — some of it winkingly acknowledged, other bits ostentatiously milked. No one milked the audience more for laughs or embodied the Victorian, vaudevillian  villain quite as well, though, as did Nick Rose (Clown No. 2) – also born and raised in Herndon. Linguistically, Rose is a scream, and his Scottish maiden, a character he admits “really gets away from me,” is a Highlands highlight. He also conveys the put-upon, overworked ensemble player with abject hilarity.

Every female role (Annabella/Pamela/Margaret) falls to versatile virtuoso Emily Levey. Yet one of her most memorable scenes is something of a scene change: She goes into a reverie with a toy airplane, with childlike abandon layering her own sound effects and drama, reminding us what “pretend” is all about – a true paean to theater. And her “close talking” with Finley is priceless.

Evil laughter pealing from several characters proves contagious and murderously funny. But Evan Crump (Clown No. 1) brings a sophisticated style of humor. Like Teller from the comic duo Penn & Teller, or Laurel of Laurel & Hardy, his quiet intensity is endearing as  he sculpts a new brand of slapstick. Between Crump and Rose, there haven’t been more memorable bad guys on stage since the gangsters of “Brush Up Your Shakespeare” from Kiss Me, Kate.

The train-top chase is another cool takeaway. It’s downright cinematic, but better than the cinema because of the allusion layered on illusion. Sound Designer Stan Harris’ moody soundtrack has the same effect, but he takes it to the next level, almost to the Dolby surround-sound home theater level. A door opens, a party spills out. Silence is heightened by a crackling fire. Suspense tightly wound by a ticking clock. Mumbled retorts like disembodied adults in “Peanuts.” Bagpipe accompaniment moving magically from stage left to downstage.

And James Villarubia’s role of scenic designer in this stadium-seating black box is a tall order – we’re talking three stories of non-wasted space and painstaking detail. Kudos to all involved, as it’s hard to distinguish the contributions from this distinguished team, from Hoffmann to Technical Director David Phelps, Props Designer Kevin Laughon, Costume Designer Jenny O-Donnell – O’Donnell literally demonstrates the many hats the actors wear by continuously topping  each fab topper.

Only Finley as Hannay, the man of mistaken identity, plies just one role, playing it to the hilt with both athleticism and suave class, like John Cleese doing Cary Grant. The Playbill advertises that the players morph into 140 characters – an accidental Twitter reference? Even so, it’s a cunning reminder that the story of a wanted man who tracks his fate by stealing glances at newspaper headlines and who can outrun a news cycle is refreshingly quaint in our overwrought information age — when spying has little to do anymore with saving the world. Implausible that Rose’s trollish Farmer John could manage such measure of ignorance today. Then there’s the comedy of map-folding. Doesn’t quite work with Google Maps. And when it comes to Hitchcockian devices, nothing is quite as menacing as the ringing of a telephone. But can anyone under 25 even relate?

From Left: Evan Crump as Clown 2 and Nick Rose as Clown 1. Photo by Rebekah Purcell, VSION.
From Left: Evan Crump as Clown 2 and Nick Rose as Clown 1. Photo by Rebekah Purcell, VSION.

Twenty-five years. That’s how long it has taken this troupe to graduate to the major leagues. It’s been a barn-raising of sorts (yes, they once were housed in a barn), not to mention culture-and consciousness-raising.

And there to witness this top-flight achievement was Herndon Mayor Lisa Merkel, sitting to my right, as well as Cappies co-founder Judy Bowns and countless other community and theater dignitaries. Fairfax County Supervisor John Foust even made a cameo.

NextStop Theatre’s The 39 Steps is a glorious romp. It was a night to remember, or as Hitch would say: “Good evening.”

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The 39 Steps plays through Oct. 20, 2013, at NextStop Theatre Company’s Industrial Strength Theatre in Herndon, Va. For tickets, call (866-811-4111), or purchase them online.

LINKS

Reaching the NextStop’ Part 1: An Introduction by Evan Hoffmann.

Reaching the NextStop’ Part 2: NextStop Theatre Company’s First Season Season Schedule by Evan Hoffmann.

Meet the cast of The 39 Steps.