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Arts & Entertainment

Review: "The 39 Steps"

From Issue: Volume XX - Number 20

By Ben Miles

Though “The 39 Steps” is a melodramatic novel, first published 1915 and authored by John Buchan, it is probably best known as a 1935 film by that master of suspense, Alfred Hitchcock. In the early 2000s, Patrick Barlow adapted the novel and screenplay to the live theater. This time, however, the early twentieth century novel and the Depression-era movie were transformed into a singular twenty-first century stage farce. After premiering in the United Kingdom in 2005 and then coming to the United States in 2007, it was recognized with an Olivier Award for Best Comedy.

Now, “The 39 Steps” has made its way to the Laguna Playhouse and, after seeing it, it’s difficult to imagine ever viewing the Hitchcock film without thinking about this farcical stage conceit and laughing out loud. Directed with exquisite timing by Kevin Bigger, a cast of four – in two acts and within about two-hours – play a hundred-plus characters.

The plot is convoluted and involves the lead character, Richard Hannay, attending a performance of “Mr. Memory,” showcasing a man with extraordinary powers of recall. During the demonstration a fight erupts and gunshots are heard. In the subsequent uproar, Hannay ends up consoling the panicked Annabella Schmidt. Annabella convinces Hannay to take her back to her living quarters, where she reveals that she is an espionage agent being pursued by assassins committed to killing her.

With more intricate complications on the way, what makes this farce fun is that it never slows its pace to make sure the audience is keeping up with the storyline. In fact, soon it becomes apparent that the story is not the most important ingredient of this fast-moving farce. Rather, it is the performers’ dedication to straight-faced absurdity that makes the slapstick shenanigans the prime ingredient here. Farces can run the gamut from funny to fetid, all within the same play. Fortunately for So Cal theatergoers, “The 39 Steps” leans more toward the former than the latter.

With sterling stagecraft by scenic and costume designer, Peter McKintosh, lighting designer Jeremy Rolla (recreating the original Broadway strobe effects of Kevin Adams), and sound maven Mic Pool, a quartet of players render such enjoyable and joyous performances that we in the audience are won over from the first step to the last.

As Richard Hannay, Dan Fenaughty is as physical a comedy performer as you’re likely to see on this or any other Southland stage. From his sleeping fits – filled with charmingly exaggerated tosses and turns – to his escape atop a “moving” train (see it to believe it) – Fenaughty delivers a fully farcical, yet somehow believable, characterization.

Playing not only the doomed Annabella, but also Pamela – an unsuspecting train-traveler, and Margaret – a farmer’s daughter – Larissa Klinger is a masterful comedienne, with chameleon abilities. It also doesn’t hurt that Klinger exudes sex appeal.
Then there are the duo of Nicholas Wilder and Tobias Shaw who excel in incarnating the 102 other characters on display. Their quick-change routines and physical escapades are in themselves worth the price of admission. Plus the pratfalls performed here seem to be injury-defying.

Though the idea for “The 39 Steps” comes from an earlier novel, it is the auteurship of Alfred Hitchcock which is paid tribute to in this version of “The 39 Steps.” Sly references to such Hitchcock classics as “Strangers on a Train,” “North by Northwest,” “Vertigo,” and, of course “Psycho” are easily made, making this family-friendly play all the more playful.

“The 39 Steps,” a Windwood Productions project, continues at the Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road, through Oct. 21. Evening performances are at 8 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday (and at 7 p.m. on Sunday Oct. 7). Matinees are at 2 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays (as well as on Thursday, at 2 p.m., Oct. 11). For reservations, call (949) 497-2787. For further information, visit