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Hitchcock's The 39 Steps' pays wacky homage to the master film director and Benny Hill

"Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps," is non-stop zany fun. Describing the plot is a little like giving away the secrets in a three-card monte game. 

Review by Vince Mediaa

The San Francisco Playhouse continues to celebrate their 20th season with Patrick Barlow's Olivier Award-winning comedy THE 39 STEPS. The farce honors Hitchcock’s early work and is now on SFPH stage through April 20th. Directed by the clever Susi Damilano and featuring four powerhouse local comic actors. The polished Phil Wong plays the frantic Richard Hannay throughout the whole play. He is joined by the three comic pro’s; the brilliant Renee Rogoff and the rousing Greg Ayers who play the two quick-changing “clowns” and the impressive Maggie Mason all who play over 50 different roles. 

THE 39 STEPS is based on John Buchan’s 1915 thriller novel by the same name. It was adapted by Alfred Hitchcock into a classic British film in 1935, and then a stage play by Barlow.  The comedy will keep any audience on its toes, it has more than its share of comedic shenanigans sure to deliver more laughter than puns. Directed imaginatively by Damilano, this romp of a crime noir has plenty of vintage flair as well as adventure, romance, comedy, and suspense. But, what really makes this show such fun is that it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Hitchcock’s classics are spoofed; some of his most famous works Vertigo and Rear Window are just a portion of the “Hitch” Easter eggs that run amok in this production.  Some of the dark and witty humor from STEPS call to mind humor like the murder mystery comedy classics including Clue that was produced last season at the SFPH. Benny Hill, Monty Python and the Marx Brothers come to mind as we see the frantic pace of the four member cast. And yes Hitch makes his classic apperance as he did for all his films, in this case as a shadow puppet.

Phil Wong portrays Hannay with a mix of bumbling and delightful charm.  Set in Scotland, he is a man on the run after a chance encounter with a femme fatale played by the terrific Maggie Mason, leading to a murder mystery.   What she does well is depict each character distinctly, they all have the same familiar strength, vulenerability, and truthfulness as the tale unfolds.  It's a madcap adventure with high jinx galore and characters that range from a ludicrous man with ridiculous eyebrows to a flirtatious and outspoken crossdressed innkeeper.  A couple of gags get a bit repetitive, yet fit right into the production’s silly charm.

Heather Kenyon’s set design includes mostly props created by Blue Hephaestus and bright stage front for the Mr Brian bit. Derek Duarte’s sharp lighting, and Dan Alvaro Holland’s exceptional, carefully-timed sound effects are like the 5th player in some of the production’s most humorous scenes.  Moveable set pieces transform each scene and costume designer Alice Ruiz’s colorful gowns, dynamic wigs, and tweed and paisley suits brighten the production’s vintage noir atmosphere. 

Taking on this production was no small feat for its four stellar actors who depict all the characters;  Ayers, Mason and Rogoff are more than up for the task as they cleverly switch roles at the drop of a hat or within seconds.  With impeccable timing and snappy chemistry, these comic pro’s bring to life a variety of accents and deliver a great deal of physical comedy full throttle with sharp dialogue. Describing the plot is a little like giving away the secrets in a three-card monte game. 

The best spot to spend your spring break is with this zany cast of THE 39 STEPS. Take a break from these difficult times and escape to SFPH’s unconventional, madcap, and lighthearted spring romp. Next up at the Playhouse is THE GLASS MENAGERIE that opens May 2nd. But in the meantime bring your questions for "Mr. Memory," who can answer any audience member's question. 



Adaptation by Patrick Barlow

From the novel by John Buchan

From the film by Alfred Hitchcock

Directed by Susi Damilano


Phil Wong, Renee Rogoff, Greg Ayers and Maggie Mason

Must Close – April 20, 2024 

2 hours one intermission


Photos by Jessica Palopoli


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