Review: THE 39 STEPS at NextStop Theatre Company

This farcical play is the latest production at NextStop Theatre Company, celebrating the company’s tenth year with a restaging of NextStop’s first production.

By: Sep. 12, 2023
Review: THE 39 STEPS at NextStop Theatre Company

Spy thrillers are a staple in our culture - collectively, we’re enamored with the intrigue, the femme fatale or the plucky ingénue, and the brilliant but relatable everyman who solves the case.

Well most people are. Some of us preferred Maxwell Smart over James Bond and found the tropes tired or laughably predictable, even in technically great films, like The Maltese Falcon.

For those in the first category, there’s Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps, the highly-regarded 1935 film. And for those in the second, there’s The 39 Steps, the comedy play.

In both versions, the plot is fairly straightforward: The lead, Richard Hannay, finds himself embroiled in the world of spycraft when an outing to the London Palladium leads him to the mysterious Annabella Schmidt, who tells Hannay she is being pursued by assassins attempting to stop her from revealing the plot to steal vital military information, and mentions something called “The 39 Steps.” Later that night, Smith awakens Hannay with a warning before dying from a knife in her back, her last acts directing him to Scotland to attempt to finish her work in revealing the plot. Hannay, now suspected of Smith’s murder, travels to Scotland in search of Smith’s associates and answers, hoping to stop the plot before it’s too late. Where the two productions differ is the execution: while Hitchcock’s movie is a classic example of the traditional spy thriller, the 2005 play takes a decidedly different approach.

The play, adapted by Patrick Barlow, takes on a more farcical tone, leaning into poking at the cliches and audience expectations of the genre. Productions are typically more whimsical as well, with set pieces and props cobbled together in an industrial manner, and four actors playing the totality of the cast (and a few inanimate objects), sometimes playing more than one character in the same scene or conversation. There are puns and references to Hitchcock’s other works, and jabs at some of spy thrillers’ more notable characteristics, such as the mysterious woman whose presence starts the quest, or the villain’s reveal.

Review: THE 39 STEPS at NextStop Theatre Company
(L to R) Rebecca Ballinger, Matthew Shea

This farcical play is the latest production at NextStop Theatre Company, celebrating the company’s tenth year with a restaging of NextStop’s first production. NextStop’s production of The 39 Steps has big shoes to fill, both artistically and locally, but Director Evan Hofmann and his talented team rise to the challenge with a glee that is palpable throughout the performance.

The show starts with the cast, in matching black and white ensembles, taking the stage early to inform the audience that they will be flipping coins to determine who will play which part - while, traditionally, Hannay is played by one actor, the three female love interests by another, and the rest of the story is filled out by the other two actors, NextStop adds a few additional challenges by mixing around who plays the women (each is played by a different actor), and determining the night of each performance who will assume which position, with each actor prepared to play at least one lead as well as the legion of characters that appear throughout the show. This also adds an element of spontaneity to the production - no two performances will be wholly alike, and what the audience will see is determined mere minutes before curtain.

This makes for an incredibly difficult performance, but NextStop’s cast is more than capable of pulling this off. Rebecca Ballinger, Matthew Shea, Sarah Anne Sillers, and Jaclyn Young are each clearly talented in their own right, but the chemistry the four have together is nothing short of fantastic. They breeze through the quick-talking, pun-filled script, sharing asides with the audience as though confiding in a friend, and bounce off each other with a fascinating fluidity. Even the scenes where they change character mid-conversation - cleverly managed through Hoffman’s excellent staging, Johanna Presby’s smart costumes, and Ivy Martinez’s thoughtful props - flow seamlessly and hilariously. The buoyancy in their performances is striking and enchanting.

Helping the actors with their task is the clever, sparse, and adaptable set - courtesy of Technical Director, Jack Wilson, Scenic Designer Jack GoldenScenic Artists Suzy Alden, Tina Thayer, and Gabriella Trevino-Bandy - and the fun and functional props Martinez uses to help them fill it out. The result is magical, smart, and often hilarious. Hailey LaRoe and Zackary Tomney bring solid lighting and sound designs, respectively, and Presby’s costumes, created with the help of Associate Costume Director Imari Pyles, perfectly capture the era as well as the steady parade of characters the actors embody each time they cross the stage - my vintage-loving heart was particularly enamored with Pamela’s outfit and shoes. Dialect Coach Elizabeth Wiley deserves tremendous praise for her work on this production - the vague German/Russian accents the villains assumed, the thick Scottish burrs, and the shifts in dialect that often revealed character intents were beautifully executed, and added a layer of clever detail.

NextStop Theatre Company’s kickoff to its tin anniversary is delightful, hilarious, and engaging. The cast and crew never seem to take themselves too seriously, and the joy they infuse into the performance is palpable and compelling. The result is a sense that the audience is in on the joke with them from the moment the cast sets foot on the stage to start flipping coins all the way through the final bow, and that sense of a shared experience is what truly elevates live theater.


NextStop Theatre Company’s The 39 Steps runs on select dates through October 8th. Please note that this production contains loud noises (including gunshots), flashing lights, haze, and depictions of violence. Performance run time is approximately 2 hours, with one 15-minute intermission. Information about tickets and accessibility can be found on the Click Here.

Photos courtesy of DJ Corey Photography. Banner image features (L to R) Matthew Shea, Sarah Anne Sillers.


Review: MULAN at Opera House/Kennedy Center Photo
Review: MULAN at Opera House/Kennedy Center

What did our critic think of MULAN at Opera House/Kennedy Center?

QUARTETTO DI CREMONA Brings To US Tour To Carnegie Hall This October Photo
QUARTETTO DI CREMONA Brings To US Tour To Carnegie Hall This October

On Thursday, October 26 at 7:30 pm, Quartetto di Cremona, Italy's preeminent string quartet, make their Carnegie Hall debut as part of a five-city US tour, with performances in Santa Monica, Kansas City, Philadelphia and New Haven.  

Washington National Opera Presents Gounods ROMEO & JULIET, November 4–18 Photo
Washington National Opera Presents Gounod's ROMEO & JULIET, November 4–18

Washington National Opera presents Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, directed by Simon Godwin and starring Adam Smith and Rosa Feola.

Pianist Chris ORiley to Perform Radiohead & Bach at the Kennedy Center in November Photo
Pianist Chris O'Riley to Perform Radiohead & Bach at the Kennedy Center in November

Pianist Chris O'Riley performs Radiohead & Bach at Kennedy Center, bridging classical and popular music. Get event and ticket information here!

From This Author - Rachael F. Goldberg

Rachael is a native New Yorker and life-long theatre devotee. She saw her first Broadway show, “Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,” at age five, and has been hooked ever since. ... Rachael F. Goldberg">(read more about this author)


#repshow# in[i]# Scorched
ExPats Theatre (9/23-10/15)Tracker
#repshow# in[i]# Alceste at GALA Hispanic Theatre
GALA Hispanic Theatre (10/07-10/08)
#repshow# in[i]# Giraffes Can’t Dance
Hylton Performing Arts Center (2/24-2/24)
#repshow# in[i]# Stephanie J. Block
The Barns at Wolf Trap (2/09-2/10)
#repshow# in[i]# Mnozil Brass
Center for the Arts at George Mason University (2/25-2/25)
#repshow# in[i]# Coco in Concert
Hylton Performing Arts Center (10/13-10/13)
#repshow# in[i]# Virginia Opera: The Barber of Seville
Center for the Arts at George Mason University (11/12-11/12)
#repshow# in[i]# XIX Fuego Flamenco Festival: Lo Preciso
GALA Hispanic Theatre (11/09-11/12)
#repshow# in[i]# Snow Maiden
Synetic Theater (12/09-1/06)
#repshow# in[i]# Linda Eder
The Barns At Wolf Trap (2/01-2/01)

Recommended For You