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Monday, May 20, 2024

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PerformanceStage ReviewHilarious performances whisk you up a shaky '39 Steps'

Hilarious performances whisk you up a shaky ’39 Steps’

San Francisco Playhouse lampoons a ripe Hitchcock—but you may want to binge your noir beforehand.

One thing you could always appreciate about classic Looney Tunes shorts was the way they knew how to be hilarious at face value, even if you don’t get the subtext or allusions. You didn’t need to be an expert in film noir to appreciate the impressions of Bogart, Cagney, or Edward G. Robinson. Nor did you need a degree in Wagnerian opera to enjoy the gut-busting pleasure of singing “Kill da wabbit!” Most of all, having an audience composed primarily of pre-teens meant most of the sexual innuendos wouldn’t be understood.

The 39 Steps (through April 20 at SF Playhouse) isn’t just an Hitchcockian farce, it’s a farce that practically requires you to be an expert on the late British film-maker. I mean, you have to be one of those folks who’s a permanent staple at Noir City. The play is a riff on his pre-WWII film of the same name, but contains allusions to his later works (most notably, an explicit nod to North by Northwest). Unless you know Hitch’s filmography, you won’t catch them all, which leaves the slapstick retelling to do the heavy lifting.

Richard Hannay (usually played by Phil Wong; understudy Adam Griffith was in the matinee I saw) is an affluent Englishman in pre-war London who is going about his own business when, as Hitch characters are wont to do, he finds himself wrapped up in a case of murder and espionage. After a night at the theatre with mysterious German Annabelle Schmidt (Maggie Mason), they head back to his place, where she explains the convoluted goings-on to him. In the morning, she has a knife in her back.

Hannay then sets off to Scotland to meet with a mysterious professor of whom Schmidt spoke. Along the way, Hannay encounters any number of colorful locals, eccentric performers, and corrupt officials (mostly played by Greg Ayers and Renee Rogoff), as well any number of attractive women (played by Mason) who all but throw themselves at him. And yes, there are Nazis.

The cast of ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo by Jessica Palopoli

The 39 Steps is one of those shows much like Point Break Live! in how the very idea of spoofing the topic is considered the biggest joke of all. There’s nothing wrong with spoofing the revered works of Hitchcock. Quite the contrary: Jill Vice’s A Fatal Step riffed the tropes in a solo show, and Killing My Lobster had a great show several years ago where they lampooned Hitch’s love of San Francisco and his gross misogyny. If anything, Hitchcock deserves to be taken down a peg.

Yet the Playhouse production never seems to truly find the right balance when it comes to the jokes. There’s lots of fourth wall-breaking bits about how this show is put on with only an ensemble of four and minimal props—with the hilarious Ayers and Rogoff going full-tilt boogie in their commitment to the madcap menagerie they portray—and Griffith and Mason have genuine chemistry as the inevitable couple. (Griffith, in particular, perfectly nails the dry British wit of such Hitchcock stars as Rod Taylor and Cary Grant.)

Direction is handled by company co-founder Susi Damilano, who’s gotten better in recent years nailing down comedic timing, but the pacing is still a bit off on this one. Plus, the show’s low-budget sensibilities (one could imagine this being performed at a black box) seem to conflict with the Playhouse’s lavish resources. Sight gags about using mannequins in place of an actor in the same scene contradict the elaborate theatre boxes and detailed bedroom pieces (wonderfully designed by Heather Kenyon) of other scenes. One wishes they’d dedicated to either a well-funded pastiche of film noir or a bargain-basement spoof where they never even open the curtains because everything is performed in front of them.

Phil Wong and Maggie Mason in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo by Jessica Palopoli

Still, the performances are hilariously watchable, which makes for a fun time spent.

Due to a scheduling conflict, I had to see the show on Sunday matinee rather than a the scheduled COVID-safe Friday show. Very few people were masked, but the Playhouse’s HVAC system did its usual work of circulating the air to the point of Artic chill. My Aranet4’s CO² readings never appeared to go higher than 606ppm, dropping down to 548ppm by show’s end. Still, one would probably think twice before taking off their jacket. 

The problem with The 39 Steps isn’t a lack of knowledge about its subject or a lack of resources with which to present it. Paradoxically, the show may suffer from a bit too much of both. It tries to use low-budget sketch sensibilities on a grand canvas, which is why it seems to stretch itself too thin. It’s not quite High Anxiety (which was shot in SF, by the way), but at least it boasts a razor-sharp cast who understand the jokes they’re telling.

THE 39 STEPS runs through April 20 at the SF Playhouse. Tickets and further info here.

48 Hills welcomes comments in the form of letters to the editor, which you can submit here. We also invite you to join the conversation on our FacebookTwitter, and Instagram

Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III
Charles Lewis III is a San Francisco-born journalist, theatre artist, and arts critic. You can find dodgy evidence of this at thethinkingmansidiot.wordpress.com

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