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DORSET — The late, great British actress Audrey Hepburn, one of the few who could lay claim to Academy, Emmy, Grammy and Golden Globe awards, knew a little something about romantic comedy mysteries, and once famously noted: “I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.”

Hepburn, then, would have absolutely been smitten by the Dorset Player’s current production of “The 39 Steps,” adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and the movie by Alfred Hitchcock. The play is directed by Todd Hjelt and produced by Angie Merwin.

Any, really, why wouldn’t she? Take a Hitchcock masterpiece with a juicy spy novel, inject some Monty Pythonesque insanity and you have a laser-quick cliffhanger for anyone who loves magic on stage. The play has garnered Tony and Drama Desk awards and is loaded with seemingly endless laughter — coming from up to 150 characters.

The Players version holds it to about 35, (I lost count halfway through the first act, so had to rely on my playbill), an onstage plane crash, handcuffs, missing fingers and the backdrop of a brewing love story.

If you can sit through this production and find something not to love, please check your pulse.

Clearly, Barlow’s aim was to poke major fun at Hitchcock’s genre. The play calls for the whole plot of the original film to be performed by a cast of only four.

One actor (Joe Mozer) plays hero Richard Hannay, and one actress (Dana Haley) plays the women with whom he has amorous imbroglios, all while two other actors (Josh Bond, Mike Cutler) play every other character in the show: men, women, heroes, rogues, kids and even the sporadic inert object. All in pursuit of a foreign spy in Scotland who is impersonating an English professor.

As one might reckon, this manner of pandemonium demands quick and clever changes of costume, character and occasionally for the actors to play multiple roles at once. Thus the original film’s noir take is played mostly for laughs, and the script is full of nods to (with puns on the titles of) other Hitchcock flicks, including, but not limited to, “North by Northwest,” “Rear Window,” “Vertigo,” “Strangers on a Train” and “Psycho.”

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How director Hjelt, the master of improv himself, survived directing this maze of motion is a testament to his three decades of doing just that. And his actors didn’t let him down.

The haughty Mozer and goofy-to-sultry Haley somehow brilliantly managed to keep the embers simmering under the chaotic surface while rolling out the one-liners, all while Cutler and Bond stole the show, if you can call it that for almost two hours, in a blur of character and costume changes sandwiched between frenetic dialog gasps and top-shelf physical comedy that literally had the audience challenging itself to find the next guffaw more gut-wrenching than the last.

In a nod to its youth development for the love of theater, the Players also nicely integrated on-stage cameos for three of their four stagehands — two middle schoolers and one high school student — Katie McNeil, Josef Fischer and Evelyn Bond.

The production acumen of Merwin doubling up as stage manager came to the fore in the seamless crew excellence we have come to expect from the Players. Helping Merwin crack the backstage whip was Mary Jo Greco, with intelligently truncated costumes by Suzi Dorgeloh and Cherie Thompson, and dialect-coach-turned-rookie stagehand Scott Denkmen joining the above-mentioned scholastic triad. Splendidly modular set design by guru Errol Hill, complemented dramatically reverberating lights and sound by Cory Mayer, who was assisted by Brian Miksis and Peter Witter.

Breathless? You will be at the end of this show. During the intermission, the now-semi-retired professional actress Sheila Childs came over to say hello and discuss the play, and at one point blurted out to me: “After the last few years, we all needed a good laugh, but tonight we’re getting dozens!”

Childs was right, and like the Players, must have been channeling her inner Audrey Hepburn: laughter cures a multitude of ills, and we need it now more than ever. Which is why the drive to Dorset — whether shorter or longer — should be high on your list this coming weekend, so you, too, can climb to the top of “The 39 Steps,” and see for yourself.

“The 39 Steps” adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and the movie by Alfred Hitchcock, is directed by Todd Hjelt, and produced by Angie Merwin, and will run through April 2 at the Dorset Players, 104 Cheney Road in Dorset. Masks are recommended but no longer required in the Playhouse. For tickets, call the box office at 802-867-5777 or visit

Telly Halkias is a national award-winning freelance journalist, and a member of the American Theatre Critics Association. Email: Twitter: @TellyHalkias


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