‘The 39 Steps’ offers a great time at the theater


Nearly 30 years after the death of Alfred Hitchcock, the name of the iconic movie director can still raise eyebrows and interest. The king of suspense and of guiding moviegoers down their own paths of imagination, Hitchcock’s films are still top picks today.

Continuing its tradition of creating exciting and adventurous new work, the La Jolla Playhouse mixes Hitchcock’s foreboding style with the slapstick of Monty Python in “The 39 Steps.” The West Coast premiere runs through Sept. 13.

The Tony and Olivier award-winning “The 39 Steps” is hitting San Diego at the perfect time. Overloaded with more bad news than good, people are ready for a laugh, and they are nonstop in this La Jolla Playhouse and Seattle Repertory Theatre production.

Richard Hannay (Ted Deasy) begins the play while sitting in his 1935 London flat with a dialogue about his boring life. While out at an entertainment venue he becomes entangled with a pretty - but peculiar - woman who insists he take her home. Annabella (Claire Brownell) immediately dictates to Richard where he should sleep as she heads to his bedroom, but not before warning him that someone is trying to kill her.

Richard dismisses her tall tale about a secretive spy group - called The 39 Steps - until Annabella emerges from his room with a knife plunged in her back. When newspapers blast Richard’s mug across their front pages as a murderer, he finds himself on the run and trying to find the secretive group.

Eric Hissom as Man #1 and Scott Parkinson as Man #2 round out the cast members, who delightfully, and sometimes nearly out of breath, play more than 100 characters in the comedy. From farmhouse, to train, to a politician’s meeting, Richard manages to get caught and then escape more than once. Each actor is amazing as a simple wardrobe change, infused with a brilliant change of personality, bring another character into the story. It also produces more hilarious rounds of laughter from the audience.

Patrick Barlow, who won the Olivier Award for Best New Comedy for “The 39 Steps,” has done a great adaptation of the play based on several mediums. He’s a legend in British theatre, television and radio as well as for his hilarious two-man National Theatre of Brent.

The production team of Maria Aitken, director; Peter McKintosh, scenic/costume designer; Kevin Adams, lighting designer; and Mic Pool, sound designer, has done an amazing job.

Every minute something is moving, happening or changing on the stage. Minimal props are cleverly used again and again – like when a set of ladders are transformed into a kitchen table, chairs and a window. And there’s more fun. The music, ranging from movie-themed tunes of Hitchcock’s era to those accompanying the chase scenes and sound effects, keep the audience immersed in the action. There are also references to Hitchcock films - some obvious, other obscure - throughout the production that keep everyone watching very alert.

Some plays are thought-provoking, startling or merely lacking in originality. “The 39 Steps” is pure escapism and one of the best times anyone can have at the theater.

‘The 39 Steps’

  • Through Sept. 13
  • Mandell Weiss Theatre - La Jolla Playhouse
  • 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, La Jolla
  • (858) 550-1010