Theater Review: THE 39 STEPS (San Francisco Playhouse)

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by Chuck Louden on March 28, 2024

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


They say that timing is everything. Timing certainly is everything in The 39 Steps, the English spy spoof that occupies a delightful, often amazing, and even suspenseful two hours at the San Francisco Playhouse.

A fun-filled comedy slapstick farce based on the Alfred Hitchcock thriller The 39 Steps takes place in pre-WWII London, where Richard Hannay (Phil Wong) inadvertently stumbles upon a British spy ring that seems to be smuggling military secrets. This Everyman, often wandering into the wrong place at the wrong time, is being chased by mysterious secret agents while encountering damsels in distress and people in trench coats lurking in the shadows.

Pamela (Maggie Mason) and Richard Hannay (Phil Wong) find shelter
from Mr. and Mrs. McGarrigle (Greg Ayers and Renee Rogoff)

Adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan and the film, The 39 Steps is a combination of a 1930s screwball comedy and a 1940s film noir movie. Aside from being a great story, the show’s most amazing aspect is a cast of over 100 characters played by three of the most talented and creative comedic actors I have ever seen: Maggie Mason, Gregg Ayers and Rene Rogoff.

Richard Hannay (Phil Wong) is apprehended by two policemen
(Renee Rogoff and Greg Ayers) as Pamela (Maggie Mason) denies association

Mason, with a perfect figure and complexion, nails the dark spy Annabella, the kind-hearted Margaret who sees the good in Hannay, and unfortunate do-gooder Pamela who gets dragged into his antics; you root for every character. Watching Mason’s multitude of wigs designed by Laundra Tyme, you may be reminded of Rose on Schitt’s Creek.

Sheep deter the journey for the car's passengers
(Greg Ayers, Maggie Mason, Phil Wong, and Renee Rogoff)

Ayers and Rogoff (Clown 1 and Clown 2) truly amaze with the difficult task of executing no less than 50 characters each. These comedy pros are much better and more exciting than watching an episode of Saturday Night Live. Their characters are not simply quick-changing Alice Ruiz‘s costumes with a re-entry — they are sometimes switching mid-scene. It’s a master class in clowning when they just turn around and, with a change of a facial expression, become a milkman, a newsboy, traveling lingerie salesmen, all sorts of English and Scottish policemen, secret agents, Scottish politicians, a train conductor, a cleaning woman, theater performers, and an elderly husband and wife who operate a Scottish hotel.  It’s a fun and fascinating ride for the audience. A scene in the second act with all four of the actors in a “car” driving along a winding road going over bumps is a well-choreographed comic skit worth the price of admission.

 Richard Hannay (Phil Wong) evades a salesman (Renee Rogoff)
and a newsboy (Greg Ayers) on the train

Scenic Designer Heather Kenyon’s minimal black set mostly relies on a black curtain and Blue Hephaestus‘s various props to quickly change a scene. SF Playhouse co-founder and director Susie Damilano ensures that this fast-paced tour de farce comedy fires on all cylinders.

The 39 Steps is really a celebration of the artifice of the theater. The audience is gripped by Hannay’s struggles to clear himself of a murder charge and solve the titular mystery. At the same time, spectators can revel in a dazzling demonstration of how live theater fools the audience with lighting and makeup and props and other tools of stagecraft. OK, the basically silly play’s plot is secondary to all the zany action, but it’s a wonderful ride.

photos by Jessica Palopoli / San Francisco Playhouse

The 39 Steps
San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street in San Francisco
Tues-Thurs at 7; Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on April 20, 2024
for tickets ($15-$125), call 415.677.9596 or visit SF Playhouse

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