TheatreWorks’ production of The 39 Steps is a rollicing, raucous romp through inter-war England and Scotland loosely based on Alfred Hitchcock’s film of the same name. The film, in turn, is loosely based on the 1915 novel by John Buchan. The result is a play that has very little in common with the nail-biting adventure of the original book, but contains its own kind of charm.
The ideal way to see this show is to have seen the Hitchcock film, but not really remember the ending, and to have a healthy ability to laugh at the classics. If you’re hoping for an action-packed adventure about a nation on the brink of war, like in the original novel, this is not the show you’re looking for. Instead, this version of The 39 Steps is more of a slapstick hodgepodge of appreciation for Hitchcock that just so happens to follow the movie’s plot. It’s enjoyable, certainly, and jam-packed with laugh-out-loud moments, but there’s not a lot of substance under it all.
I almost feel like it would be a disservice to summarize the plot, since it takes such a backseat to the comedy. But in short, the story is this: A bored and wealthy British man is framed for a murder that he didn’t commit and ends up running all over the U.K. in an effort to clear his name and save his country.
Other productions of this show have been widely celebrated by other critics and even snagged six Tony nominations in 2008—and TheatreWorks doesn’t disappoint. The four actors are fabulous as they frantically cycle through different roles. That stated, I’ve seen the show twice now and both times I had the same reaction. I simply don’t like the show. I’m a fan of the original story and I like suspense that keeps me on the edge of my seat. To have a show that both changes the plot and overrides the suspense with comedy just kills the enjoyment of the show for me.
That stated, the production of the script is fabulous. The actors work overtime, switching between dozens of different roles at the drop (or donning) of a hat. Each new part has a different costume, accent and body language while they utilize the sparse set to its fullest extent.
Overall, this is a show that I wish I could love. It’s full of great theatercraft and remarkable performances. But at the end of the day, I just can’t get over my disappointment about the way the show is written. It’s funny and entertaining, but that comes at the cost of the mystery, which ends up taking a backseat to the gags.
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of The 39 Steps is playing now through September 22, 2019 at The Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street. The show is performed with one 15-minute intermission. Tickets range $30-$100 with discounts available for educators, seniors, active military and patrons under the age of 35.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne