Rep Stage’s 26th season at the Horowitz Center for the Arts is closing with a madcap bang in the current run of Patrick Barlow’s “The 39 Steps,” a raucous family-friendly farce calling to film noir buffs and anyone in love with the magic of theater.
More than a century ago, Scottish novelist John Buchan created the play’s hero, Richard Hannay, in the first of five spy thrillers that Hannay appears in. In 1935, Alfred Hitchcock adapted Buchan’s “The Thirty-Nine Steps” in a classic suspense film brimming with murder, beautiful women and intrigue.
In 1996, playwrights Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon adapted the movie for the stage, to be performed by four actors playing a host of characters.
Barlow, a British actor and comedian, rewrote “The 39 Steps” in 2009 based on Corble and Dimon’s concept. His spoof surfaced in Boston two years later, earning the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy. Subsequent productions in New York City and around the world received more than a dozen theater award nominations and accolades, including two Drama Desk Awards and two Tony Awards.
Rep Stage’s producing artistic director Joseph W. Ritsch writes in the program that he was interested in setting the farce in Hitchcock’s 1930’s sound stage at the Lime Grove Studios in West London.
Audiences should certainly get that feel entering the Studio Theatre, as cast and crew bustle about onstage in their backstage characters, and the familiar sound of “The Waltz of the Marionettes” (Hitchcock’s TV show theme music) precedes the recorded pre-show announcements that mimic the master’s signature voice.
A director’s chair magically disappears just before the lights rise.
Seated center stage in an armchair, sipping Scotch, Hannay confides to the audience how lonely he is with “no pal to go about with” and the newspaper full of “elections, wars and rumors of wars.” (The play is set in the 1930s; a mention of fascism will come later.)
To cheer himself up, Hannay contemplates doing something trivial and pointless, and settles on attending a West End show.
Flash to scene 2, where Clown 1 and Clown 2 (representing hundreds of characters played by Michael Wood and Noah Israel) enact a caricature of a revue show. Kathryn Tkel enters as the mysterious lady in black, Annabella Schmidt, and the game is on.
When Annabella persuades Hannay to take her home, he finds himself not only embroiled in an international spy scheme, but on the lam for a murder he didn’t commit.
As the hero races across Europe untangling the mystery of “The 39 Steps” and trying to clear his name, the play frequently pokes fun at other Hitchcock films — notably “Strangers on a Train,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “The Birds,” “Psycho” and “North by Northwest.”
He encounters more outlandish characters than there are minutes in the show, and Ritsch’s bonny cast steps up to the challenge of an insane number of scene and costume changes.
Israel and Wood nimbly tackle hundreds of roles with no holds barred.
As the vampish Annabella, Tkel sets a high bar early on; her lovely Pamela ultimately captures Hannay’s heart; and she kills portraying Margaret, a young woman married to a crotchety old Scot.
Gay plays a single character; his lead role is extremely demanding, very funny and brilliantly executed.
All the cast members perform nimble physical shtick and deliver standout performances overall.
Their characters’ various dialects, coached by Teresa Spencer, ring true, and Joan Mather’s period costumes are spot on and visually exciting.
Ritsch finds many moments to rev up the silliness — choreographing scenes in slow-motion, for instance, or moving set pieces in the middle of scenes (“Rear Window”), using inanimate objects to represent people (and vice versa) and stoking hysterical, overblown death scenes — as he drives a flawless pace to the finish line.
The tech is also as top-notch as one should expect from a Helen Hayes Award-winning regional theater.
James Fouchard’s set is a playground full of theatrical bells and whistles; designers Conor Mulligan and Sarah O’Halloran’s lighting and sound are breathtaking, the run crew is excellent, and even props take on wonderful life of their own.
In perfect harmony, Ritsch and his creative team, cast and crew deliver a stunning show that tickles every funny bone.
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“The 39 Steps” continues through May 19, Thursdays at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., with matinee performances at 2 p.m. Friday, May 17, and on Saturdays and Sundays, at Studio Theatre of the Horowitz Visual and Performing Arts Center, Howard Community College campus, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway. Admission is $40 general; $35 seniors/military, $15 students and $10 on Thursdays. For tickets, go to repstage.org.