Constellation Theatre stages Alfred Hitchcock farce ‘The 39 Steps’

Christopher Walker, Gwen Grastorf, Drew Kopas and Patricia Hurley star in “The 39 Steps” at Constellation Theatre. (Cameron Whitman Photography)
WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The 39 Steps' at Constellation Theatre

Alfred Hitchcock is best known for Hollywood suspense across “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “North By Northwest,” “Psycho” and “The Birds,” but the best film from his pre-Hollywood period remains the British classic “The 39 Steps” (1935).

Adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow in 2005, the fast-paced parody comes to Constellation Theatre on 14th Street in Northwest D.C. now through March 15.

“I recommend it for people who have seen the movie and love the movie, because it’s so much fun to watch the story they love so much getting told in such an inventive and creative way,” director Nick Olcott told WTOP.

“For people who don’t know the movie, it’s just a good old fashioned farce. You’re gonna laugh.”

Based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan, the story follows a classic “wrong man” scenario in 1930s London. Dashing protagonist Richard Hannay takes a trip to the theater only to be mistakenly accused of murder, forcing him to go on the run.

“It strikes me as a classic Hitchcock plot,” Olcott said. “A man who’s sort of adrift in the world … suddenly finds himself involved in a plot. He doesn’t understand a conspiracy surrounds him … yet he feels he has to do the right thing and pursue it to its end.”

It also features a classic Hitchcock “McGuffin” over the meaning of the 39 Steps.

“He finally meets the person who can explain to him what the 39 Steps are, but that man will kill him before he’ll tell him,” Olcott said. “We finally get the denouement and find out what the 39 Steps are in a vaudeville performance at the London Palladium.”

Remarkably, a cast of just four actors portrays over 150 characters in the play.

“Drew Kopas playing Richard Hannay [is] the only one who doesn’t have to change clothes,” Olcott said. “Patricia Hurley plays the three women who enter his life: the seductive German spy, the innocent Scottish farmer’s wife and the prickly English beauty.”

“Then a dynamic duo of two actors, Christopher Walker and Gwen Grastorf, play everyone else in the world. They each play over a dozen characters, sometimes in the same scene and sometimes in conversation with themselves. It’s quite an acting tour de force.”

This makes for fast-paced, rapid-fire romp from London to Scotland and back.

“My biggest job as director was how to keep the pace going,” Olcott said. “As a friend of mine said, ‘You know, this is a play that uses two genres. It’s a suspense story and it’s a comedy.’ Those are two genres where you can’t let the audience get ahead of the action, so one of my biggest jobs was keeping it moving.”

Visually, he uses light and shadow to Hitchcockian effect.

“The biggest challenge is: how do we do things on stage that they can do in the movies?” Olcott said. “There’s a chase on the outside of a train. There’s a ‘North By Northwest’ style airplane hunting someone down. … Many of the special effects are done by shadow puppets or shadow effects.”

Other stunts are choreographed by movement director Mark Jaster.

“[He] is a physical comedian like no other and is also a brilliant coach in physical comedy,” Olcott said. “He helped us create some of the wonderful effects we have, like a train chase, a train wreck and even an explosion that sends our leading man hurtling across the stage to wonderful physical effect.”

He says it’s thrilling to watch such vast effects unfold at such an intimate theater.

“Constellation has carved out a very special niche in the Washington theater market where they truly do epic plays,” Olcott said. “We’re in this old auto body shop on 14th Street. And what I always say about Constellation is its vision extends far beyond the four walls of this building.”

Since its founding in 2007, artistic director Allison Stockman and scenic designer A.J. Guban continue to bring performances to life at Source, a flexible black-box theater.

“[Guban] can create illusions in this space that you wouldn’t believe,” Olcott said. “Sometimes I swear he’s knocked out the back wall. … They’re not letting the scarce floor space [or] limited budget keep them from doing enormous huge plays with big sweeping stories.”

It’s currently the hottest theater in town, leading this year’s Helen Hayes Award nominations with 11 for its recent production of “The Little Shop of Horrors.”

“It’s very exciting to receive so many nominations and to raise the visibility of our small theater in such a rich and varied theater scene,” Stockman said. “I was glad to see some of the artists who worked on the show being recognized.”

Rather than bask in the glory, Stockman and Guban are charging forward.

“They were both with me working on set when the [award] news came in,” Olcott said. “Both of them were like, ‘Oh, that’s great. Now how do we get this Procyon set?’ For them, it’s all about making the next thing. It’s not about sitting back and enjoying the last one. It’s all about what’s next. And that’s why I love working here.”

Hear our full conversation below:

WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Nick Olcott and Allison Stockman (Full Interview)

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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