For nine years, Dignity Players has mounted quality productions on the themes of social justice and equality — morality plays that inspire with occasional forays into seriocomedy — brilliant, thought-provoking stuff. And now, as Monty Python would say, for something completely different: a hilarious send-up of John Buchan’s classic thriller The 39 Steps, which became a 1935 Alfred Hitchcock hit. Like a beloved professor playing a prank on the last day of school, Dignity delivers an unforgettable couple of hours of pure pleasure, with a gag a minute and romance to boot.
The story follows the adventures of Richard Hannay (Ty Cobb), who leads a boring life until he meets a woman with a thick German accent, Annabella Schmidt (Rebecca Ellis), who says she’s a spy. He takes her home where she is murdered, and soon a mysterious organization called The 39 Steps is hot on his trail in a manhunt across the British Isles that climaxes in a death-defying finale.
This film noir classic has enjoyed a renaissance of late as a riotous blend of virtuoso performances in which three of the four actors portray 25 roles ranging from walk-ons to leads. It sounds impossible, yet with inventive stagecraft it’s not only possible but preferable to the traditional production. There’s Chaplinesque physical comedy, cartoonish pranks, puppetry, shadow play, mime, a train-top chase scene — and references to every Hitchcock blockbuster.
From the opening scene at a Vaudevillian performance featuring The Amazing Mr. Memory (Duncan Hood) and his manager (Eric Lund), these two actors (billed simply as Clown 1 and Clown 2) never take a break. No sooner does the imperiled Annabella appeal to Richard for protection than the clowns are lurking outside his apartment as the two most delightful trench-coated spies since Boris and Natasha. Each time Richard glances out the window, they skulk and slink into view carrying their own full-sized lamppost, reappearing throughout the show as cops, businessmen, inn keepers, farmers, Hitler sympathizers, newsboys, conductors, maids and milkmen. Ellis, meanwhile, reappears as a helpful farmer’s wife and a traitorous confidante who unmasks him only to find herself handcuffed to him for the duration.
Technically more complex than Dignity’s usual fare, this production features fog, gunshots, special lighting and a slide show backdrop. The hilarious preshow of Alfred Hitchcock’s tongue-in-cheek videos introducing his greatest hits is not to be missed.
Director Jim Reiter, a veteran of Dignity Players hits such as Sordid Lives, The Crucible and Shadowbox, has assembled a brilliant cast. Cobb — a Dignity alum from 8 and Sight Unseen — is equal parts suave, sly and charming. Ellis — who has appeared with nearly every local theater except Dignity — is cool and glamorous with a demure style perfect for the period. Lund — who has worked with Dignity on and off stage in productions such as The Vagina Monologues, A Christmas Carol, The Last Days of Judas Iscariot and The Shadow Box — exhibits Peter Sellers’ comic genius in his portrayal of characters such as Professor Jordan, the Nazi.
Hood — an ubiquitous local favorite memorable for his hilarious Scrooge, Psuedolus and Shakespeare — displays his box of tricks: from Mr. Memory’s out-of-body experiences to a sanctimonious Scot’s brimstone mealtime blessing. After appearing with countless theaters in the Baltimore-Washington area, he is excited to be doing this play, his one and only with Dignity, because of this show. “Normally the stuff they do is too serious for me to care about,” he says, “but THIS ONE!”
If the perception of seriousness has kept you from Dignity’s many outstanding productions over the years, change your ways. The 39 Steps is the funniest play you’ll see all year and Dignity’s swan song: a parting gift for nine great years.
Costumes: Jeannie Christie. Stage manager: Andy McLendon. Technical designers: Julien Jacques and Mickey Lund.
Playing thru May 17. Th-Sa 8pm at The Unitarian Universalist Church of Annapolis, 333 DuBois Rd. $20 w/discounts; rsvp: 410-266-8044 x127; www.dignityplayers.org.