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BWW Review: ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S THE 39 STEPS Brings Top-notch Style and Design to DC

BWW Review: ALFRED HITCHCOCK'S THE 39 STEPS Brings Top-notch Style and Design to DC
Christopher Walker, Gwen Grastorf, Drew Kopas, Patricia Hurley (photo by Cameron Whitman Photography)

Constellation Theatre Company's production of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is an interesting exploration of what can go very right, and a little wrong, in producing a play of this complexity.

As adapted by the comedian and playwright Patrick Barlow, the piece translates Hitchcock's 1935 film for the stage, combining elements of farce, film, music hall, spy thriller, and suspense. The production begins with a curtain speech performed by actors in the play - Gwen Grastorf and Christopher Walker - dressed as old-time ushers, and sets a tone for a funny, snappy, witty evening. Their nod to the arch, slightly over-the-top film acting of the 30s works beautifully.

The curtain opens on Drew Kopas as Richard Hannay, an "everyman" Englishman who later gets caught up in much more than he ever bargained for. Kopas is the only actor playing only one character in the play. Patricia Hurley plays his 3 love interests and is one of the best aspects of the play. She has a terrific sense of the style and pacing needed to make a piece like this work, especially as Annabella Schmidt in the first act. She and Kopas have some terrific moments throughout the play. After their curtain speech, Grastorf and Walker both play "Cast of Dozens," and this is not an exaggeration! Quick offstage costume changes (and even quicker ones onstage) transform both actors - sometimes within 1 or 2 seconds - into truly dozens of characters. They each have some fantastic moments, especially Grastorf as a "Mrs. Danvers" type and Walker's various policemen.

Nick Olcott obviously lead a very thoughtful rehearsal process. A play like this involves endless balls for a director to juggle, and much of the first act works very well. It's funny, sharp, and clever. Toward the end, it seemed like the actors started to lag a bit in style, pacing, and detail, though. A few minutes into the second act, the play lost the sharpness and arch quality it had at the beginning. Quick changes had flubs, pacing slowed, and the sense of style of the first act was lost, resulting in fewer laughs and a real lack of clarity in the plot.

A.J. Guban's set and lighting design are top-notch, transforming the Source space into a tiny, intimate theatre complete with boxes and proscenium and giving the filmic moments a great sense of play. Sabrina Mandell's costumes are lovely - especially those for Kopas and Hurley, and her ingenuity in costuming Grastorf and Walker was a real highlight of the evening. It was also a very gracious choice on the part of Olcott to give the backstage team a very well-deserved curtain call. They are the backbone of any production, but in this kind of play, they are particularly deserving of as much public acknowledgement as possible.

I have no doubt that the pacing and style will find their footing through the run. You can't blame the actors, all of whom are very good, for seeming to lose steam in what is essentially a 2-hour sprint! At its best, the play is sharp, funny, and a terrific example of what can be accomplished in the theatre with creativity and intention. I look forward to seeing the show later in the run when all the great aspects have grown stronger and the kinks have gotten worked out.

Running time: two hours and twenty minutes with a fifteen-minute intermission

The 39 Steps runs through March 8th at Source, 1835 14th St NW, Washington, DC 20009

For tickets, click here.

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From This Author - James McQuillen