Thirty-nine steps in the right direction

Thirty-nine steps in the right direction

By Jordan Wright (Photo/Kevin Waters/KX Photography)

Step right up for The Little Theatre of Alexandria’s rollicking tribute to Alfred Hitchcock: “The 39 Steps.”

References to Hitchcock’s classics — “The Birds,” “Dial M for Murder,” “North by Northwest,” “Psycho,” “Rear Window” and more — abound in this fantastic send-up of the “Master of Suspense.” Whatever you think of the performance, you will definitely enjoy picking out your favorite of Hitch’s works.

But back to “The 39 Steps.” We come upon our hapless hero, Richard Hannay (Jeff McDermott), in a state of high anxiety. He claims his life is worthless because nothing exciting ever happens to him.

“Find something mindless,” he suggests to himself aloud. “I know — a trip to the theater!” The quip is the audience’s first clue that this is going to be a night of cooked-up hilarity rather than horror and suspense.

“It’s music hall and vaudeville — pure theatricality,” said Ted Deasy, who has played the lead in the version at D.C.’s Warner Theatre, during an interview in 2010.

At the theater, Hannay meets a glamorous lady in red (Elizabeth Keith), who quickly inserts herself into his uneventful life with a beguiling tale of German spies, an unsolved murder and a clandestine rendezvous in a castle on the Scottish moors. Intrigued, he invites her to join him for a nightcap back at his flat, where a mysterious stranger promptly murders her. It becomes our hero’s challenge to solve this wacky whodunit.

The play is an adaptation of the eponymous Hitchcock classic. Borrowing from the 1935 film, writers Nobby Dimon and Simon Corble came up with a version to be played by four actors who perform between 130 to 150 roles. A few of these roles actually are inanimate objects. At times, the actors change characters at the flip of a switch, often playing three roles simultaneously.

The trick is making the mayhem look effortless. Piling on shticks — from vaudeville, comedia and slapstick — and employing old theatrical styles, and even Shakespearean asides, helps achieve this effect. The physical part is done at a supersonic pace that leaves the audience breathless.

McDermott is on stage throughout, giving the play its anchor, while Keith plays the three female characters (though there’s a bit of cross-dressing in some of the roles) quite handily. Bob Cohen and Erik Harrison, whose comic timing is, shall I say, “drop dead” perfect, manage to portray the dozens of others.

Lighting designers Ken and Patti Crowley cleverly set the 1930s mood. The pair created more than 150 evocative atmospheres for this electrifying production, using a flat-screen TV and projection screen for some of the images.

How they manage to suggest biplane bombardiers is for me to know and for you to find out.

“The 39 Steps” runs through November 16 at The Little Theatre of Alexandria, 600 Wolfe St. For tickets and information, call the box office at 703-683-0496 or visit