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Laurel playhouse production of 'The 39 Steps' blends Monty Python, Hitchcock thriller

Julie Rogers and Tom Howley in Laurel Mill Playhouse's production of "The 39 Steps," which has actors tackling a variety of roles.
Julie Rogers and Tom Howley in Laurel Mill Playhouse's production of "The 39 Steps," which has actors tackling a variety of roles. (Photo by Julie Rogers)

On the heels of a summer of successful children's shows, the season is changing at Laurel Mill Playhouse. Its current production of Patrick Barlow's "The 39 Steps" — a raucous adult (but family friendly) comedy — calls to Monty Python and Alfred Hitchcock fans.

Based on an adventure novel written by John Buchan in 1915 and a 1935 Hitchcock film of the same name, the script mocks at least a half dozen other 20th-century films by the master of suspense in melodramatic style.

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Originally written by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon in 1996, the play (as rewritten by Barlow in 2005) appears to be coming of age; it's been 21 years since Barlow's version debuted at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in North England.

When the show surfaced in Boston two years later, it swept the Laurence Olivier Award for Best New Comedy; subsequent productions in New York City and around the world earned more than a dozen theatre awards and nominations.

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Directed skillfully by Stephen Deininger and produced by Laurel residents and mother and daughter, Maureen and Julie Rogers, the Playhouse production is one of several to appear on the local scene in recent months.

Deininger designed the highly functional black and white unit set to accommodate near flawless scene changes led by stage manager Taylor Duvall, which along with Deininger's lighting and sound design fits the Playhouse space and the production to a tee.

A charming troupe of actors — Alan and Penni Barnett, Gary Eurice, Jeff Gilbert (who will appear as Professor Jordan this weekend only), Scott Lichtor, Tom Howley, Laurel resident Anne Hull, Rebecca Kotraba, Terri Laurino, Betse Lyons, Spencer Kate Nelson, Julie Rogers and Jen Sizer — is credited with designing fetching period costumes.

All but three actors tackle a variety of multiple roles, crossing genders as they go.

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Set in the 1930s, the action begins when the lead character, Richard Hannay — an ordinary and lonely guy who becomes embroiled in an international spy scheme — finds himself on the lam after bringing home a mysterious lady in black from the London theatre.

As Hannay, Eurice delivers a consistently believable, attractive and well-grounded character as he flees across Europe.

His adventures nod to other Hitchcock films — such as the famous chase scene on "The Flying Scotsman" — before traveling full circle to a deadly finale in London.

Kotraba plays Annabella Shmidt (the lady in black) and delivers a powerful performance as she sets the intrigue in motion. Annabella's overblown death scene is a laugh catcher, and Kotraba is also amusing as McQuarrie.

Alan Barnett's thoughtful performance as Mr. Memory provides an important clue. (Audience members should pay close attention to every character.) He also delivers a smooth performance as Mr. McGarrigle.

As the radio announcer, Mrs. Jordan and Mrs. McGarrigle, Penni Barnett brings distinct personalities and high energy to the ensemble. Her oblivious portrayal of Mrs. Jordan is a hoot.

Howley as Mrs. Higgins and a salesman, paperboy, policeman and crofter revs up the energy, humor and excitement whenever he appears onstage, switching accents and characters on a dime while notching up the pace to Monty Python levels. And he looks great in a kilt.

Hull's performances as compere, milkman and Dunwoody are equally captivating.

There is really never a dull moment in this show.

As the lovely Pamela, Lyons takes Hannay on a wild chase, ultimately capturing his (and the audience's) heart. The scene where she removes her stockings adds a pleasant sensual moment to the mix.

Julie Rogers renders an unexpected interpretation of Margaret; her character appears more animated than seductive and mysterious (like typical Hitchcock blondes) and fully embraces the Monty Python theme.

Laurino as a pilot and the tough nut sheriff is also very good, and Lichtor brewed a delectable cauldron of deviousness as Professor Jordan on opening night.

Nelson's multiple characters are crystal clear and polished in multiple roles; as are Sizer's, who stretches through a half dozen personalities without hardly breaking a sweat.

"The 39 Steps" is well played across the board. Standout performances go to Howley, Eurice and Lyons. And the sidesplitting bi-plane crash (a tribute to Hitchcock's "North by Northwest") enacted by Laurino and Nelson is one of many laugh highlights.

A bold choice for a community theater, "The 30 Steps" requires the cast and director to maneuver frenetic comedy, a legitimate spy story and some touching romance and fantasy.

Deininger and his delightful ensemble successfully navigate all. Laurel Mill Playhouse's well-paced and beautifully staged production of "The 39 Steps" does credit to the play's unique character.

"The 39 Steps" continues weekends through Oct. 2, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m., at Laurel Mill Playhouse, 508 Main St. General admission is $20. Students 18 and under, active duty military and seniors 65 and over pay $15. For reservations, call 301-617-9906 and press 2, or buy tickets online at laurelmillplayhouse.org

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