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REVIEW: "The 39 Steps" — Costa Mesa Playhouse

Updated: Jun 20, 2020

...Silliness, it would appear, has been gravely undervalued as a survival strategy

How else to explain the unquenchable life — or rather lives, for there have been many — of Richard Hannay, the charmingly fatuous fop who keeps defying death all over the world and who has once again returned to fight bad guys with bad accents in Orange County at the Costa Mesa Playhouse?

Running on frenetic hilarity, this story called “The 39 Steps" is the larky world in which the stiff upper-lipped Hannay resides, but unfortunately, quite short-lived at this point, as the show will be closing September 15th. And, yes, those of you with eagle eyes and sharp memories, that is the correct title.

I say that because there have been a few adaptations. It all began with the bestseller novel of 1915 by John Buchan, “The Thirty-Nine Steps.” It was the eve of World War I, and mining engineer and former spy Richard Hannay had returned to London after years of adventure in Africa. A suave, unflappable, prosperous playboy he was, but altogether bored by the stuffy conventionalism of England. We like him already.

But Buchan would be astounded to learn that the thriller he referred to then as a “dime novel” is now a “masterpiece classic” that has entertained for over a century. This “man-on-the-run” narrative would go on to be adopted by film makers as a standard archetype plot device in Hollywood for years to come. Four films have been made, each titled “The 39 Steps,” all varying from the original novel, some more substantially than others. Hitchcock surpasses them all easily in quality with his 1935 variation, even so departing from the book too. The 1959 and ’78 films were in color, with the latter even sparking a TV series spin-off called “Hannay.” And the more current 2008 BBC-TV film even went so far as to change the characters’ names.

Buchan actually wrote his novel while deathly ill of a duodenal ulcer, which stayed with him for the rest of his life. He later admitted that the name of the book was inspired when the author's six-year-old daughter was counting the steps on a wooden staircase leading down to the beach at a private nursing home where he was convalescing. The mysterious phrase, “The Thirty-Nine Steps” (all spelled out then), became the title of the novel and the solution to its meaning is a thread that runs throughout the whole story. Buchan, a prolific biographer and historian, altogether wrote six hilarious yarns featuring Hannay, four of which were reprinted in a softcover omnibus edition in 2006.

In our story, adapted for the stage by English playwright Patrick Barlow, and based loosely again on the Alfred Hitchcock movie, Richard Hannay, who can’t get enough compliments about his “attractive, pencil-thin mustache,” is a typical London bachelor, until a temptress foists herself upon him in his flat. Turns out she was a spy with a price on her head.

So, when she gets whacked by assassins in Hannay’s apartment for uncovering a plot by a secret organization out to steal British plans for a silent aircraft engine, he becomes a man on the run. To Scotland he goes to clear his name and uncover the spy ring called, “The 39 Steps.” This time the date is 1935, before the war, so you can guess who’s behind all this.

The Broadway production received six Tony Award nominations, winning two — Best Lighting and Sound Design as well as a Drama Desk Award for Unique Theatrical Experience.

A new plot point was also added in the story which included a vaudeville act starring “Mr. Memory.” To make things more interesting, the play's concept calls for the entirety of the adventure to be performed with a cast of only four. One actor plays the hero, Richard Hannay (Aaron Alford), a sexy, provocative actress (Caroline Jones) plays the three women (Pamela, Margaret and Anabella) with whom he has romantic entanglements.

And the two-headed dynamo of Peter Hilton and Michael Kaye, only referred to as “clowns,” offer a silly-putty pastiche of mime, mimicry and vaudeville as they play virtually every other character in the show: heroes, villains, spies, newsboys, train conductors, pilots, bawdy underwear salesmen, policemen, husband and wife Scottish innkeepers, German professors, and even the occasional inanimate object. This often requires lightning fast quick-changes for the actors, and switching characters instantaneously.

The play features a full gallery of theatrical artifice and continuous gags, including coordinated miming of transportation effects by rail and by automobile, escape by clambering outside railway carriages and along bridges, and Mr. Alford’s ardently mimed running on top of the railway cars. One of the most sublime of these ruses are his escape through the window of the Scottish croft with the constables flinging themselves after him, each negotiating a simple wooden rectangle representing the window.

Thus, Hitchcock’s serious spy thriller is now played mainly for laughs, in the style of Monty Python or Benny Hill, with the script full of allusions to his other films, including "Strangers on a Train," "Rear Window," "Psycho," "Vertigo" and "North by Northwest." Remember Cary Grant being attacked by a crop duster?

Hitchcock, ever the popular entertainer, saw how well this formula hurls audiences along with beleaguered heroes into a persecution-and-redemption fantasy, as enemy agents and police alike tail them across hill and dale and circle above them in the sky. It doesn’t give anyone time to think, “wait, this isn’t realistic.” And it allows a witty director like Hitchcock to rouse patriotic feelings without the jingo that would jangle wised-up viewers. So, in this production’s knowing riffs on the Hitchcock sensibility, if you’re looking for substance amid the inanity — you have to squint hard. We suddenly realize how fine the line is between suspense and comedy, and between high anxiety and low farce.

Mr. Alford’s Hannay is the only player with an immutable role (unless you count his momentary masquerade as a milkman in order to flee from the police). If his passionate philematology with every woman character in the show smacks of James Bond, it’s because 007’s creator, Ian Fleming, was the world’s biggest fan of the source material. His suave, con­fi­dent and charis­matic demeanor is sim­ply a plea­sure to watch — which is good since he barely leaves the stage. His se­ri­ous re­ac­tions to each mis­for­tune he en­coun­ters pro­vide plenty of comic fod­der for the au­di­ence. But even that strong per­for­mance is ar­guably up­staged occasionally by the an­tics of Mr. Hilton and Mr. Kaye.

Ms. Jones is impeccable in her roles as the three women, and later becomes the spunky heroine of the piece, providing the necessary sexual frissons while coaxing chortles out of each gooey genre confection.

Of course, each of the characters she represents is helpless to resist the dashing anti-spy, Hannay — first the intriguing German-accented femme fatale who rapidly becomes a femme morte, much to Hannay's surprise, then a dreamy, naive lassie in the wilds of Scotland who wants to run off with him, and finally a doubting, icy vixen, with whom, in a masterstroke by the author, Hannay ends up handcuffed to, dependent on her for his freedom. Their odd-couple courtship is like an erotic version of tough love: the cuffs force them to get to know each other and test their mettle in a deliciously funny bed and breakfast scene.

Taking a moment to applaud the crew, who delivered a technical marvel of a show, Jocelyn Richards job as stage manager was a Herculean success, and costumes by Laurie Martinez were amazingly perfect. Chris Mertan directed the show, and he and Daniel Mertan handled the sound, effects, and multimedia. The atmospheric lighting was designed by Ryan Linhardt. The moderate set, created by Michael Serna’s team of Mike Brown, Steve Endicott and Amanda Linhardt, mostly consisted of two red velvet theatre box seats adjoining both sides of the stage, and two old trunks, which serviced every scene, from a bed to the top of a train. Every imaginable prop came out of those trunks — a hot haddock dinner, a telephone, a full size wooden chair, etc.

If you haven’t seen the show, it will definitely be a scream a second. It’s a wild chase, winding up, significantly, where it started — back at the vaudeville stage. The plot, of course, as thin as tissue paper, makes it all the more fun and frolicsome, remaining indomitably funny even after multiple viewings. I can’t imagine anything you could do in an evening that would make you roll in the aisles more than seeing this play for the first time.

“The 39 Steps” continues at the prominent Costa Mesa Playhouse through this Sunday, September 15th. For online ticket purchases, please go to: This show is highly recommended.

Chris Daniels

Arts Reviewer

The Show Report



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