Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The 39 Steps
San Francisco Playhouse

Also see Patrick's recent review of Unpacking in P'Town

Maggie Mason and Phil Wong
Photo by Jessica Palopoli
If you can imagine a world in which the Master of Suspense, the great Alfred Hitchcock, decided to collaborate with the masters of absurdist comedy, the equally great Monty Python troupe, you might end up with something like The 39 Steps, a parody of one of Hitch's earliest–and best–films. Now playing in a San Francisco Playhouse production directed by Susi Damilano, The 39 Steps is a fun-house ride of a play, with slapstick clowning, ultra-quick costume changes (many of which happen on stage in front of our eyes), sly, winking references to other Hitchcock films, and a cast of four who inhabit 100+ different roles.

Actually, it's three actors who inhabit multiple roles, for Phil Wong portrays only the protagonist of the story, Richard Hannay, while Greg Ayers, Maggie Mason, and Renee Rogoff handle the shape-shifting that has them bouncing from one character to another–often several times in the same scene.

The action begins with Hannay, who is "tired of life," deciding to break his routine by seeing a vaudeville show featuring a mentalist named Mr. Memory. During the performance, a gunshot is heard and the crowd panics. A woman who had seated herself near Hannay introduces herself as Annabelle Schmidt, tells him it was she who fired the gun to create a diversion to allow her to escape from two men who want to kill her. Annabelle pleads with Hannay to take her to his apartment to hide. He agrees, but in the middle of the night he discovers she has been stabbed in the back. Finding a crumpled map of Scotland in her hand, and concerned he will be accused of murder, Hannay sets off for Scotland to learn what the "39 steps" means. Talk about breaking out of a routine!

The 39 Steps (the play) is designed to be accomplished in a minimalist fashion. In addition to having just four (OK, three) actors playing dozens upon dozens of roles, the show is staged with minimal sets and props, allowing the imagination of the director and actors to establish the variety of locations and thrills that composed the original film. No wind machines or representations of rail cars here: instead, when Hannay eludes the police pursuing him by climbing out a window and running along the top of a train, steamer trunks stand in for rail cars and the actors flap their coattails with their hands to simulate the effect of being atop a speeding train.

By the time the two hours (with an intermission) are up, I imagine the cast probably collapses in a heap, given the amount of energy they expend with all the frenetic action, costume changes, and non-stop physical comedy. The performers give us some absolutely brilliant moments, as when Wong as Hannay extricates himself from underneath the dead body of Annabelle Schmidt, or when an escape is made through a window frame unattached to anything else on set.

The cast does great work here. Wong is marvelous as the ordinary man in extraordinary circumstances (a favorite trope of Hitchcock's), with expressive eyes that reveal his character's confusion, conviction, and veddy British consternation. He has an easy physicality that he puts to use in nearly every scene. Maggie Mason is able to portray intelligence and ditziness in equal measure, depending on what character she is in any moment. Renee Rogoff has a glare that could cut steel, and is masterful with a range of British and Scottish accents. Greg Ayers uses his lithe frame to excellent effect, clowning with joy, especially as Mr. Memory.

Despite the charm of approaching a spy story as physical comedy, and the efforts of its skilled cast, this production lacks a sense of flow that is vital to any show, but especially one that relies on fast action and quick scene changes. Perhaps it was a slightly off night–the precise comic timing needed for a show like this can easily veer off course–or perhaps it was an over-reliance on props, but it seemed to lack the vibrant energy of the production I saw in New York some 15+ years ago.

Still, when you mash up two genius approaches to theatre–Hitchcock and Python-esque surrealism/absurdity–you're generally bound to get something that both engages and entertains. While far short of perfection, SF Playhouse's The 39 Steps is still a delightful way to spend an evening.

The 39 Steps runs through April 20, 2024, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco CA. Performances are Tuesdays-Thursdays at 7:00pm, Wednesdays at 2:00pm, Fridays at 8:00pm, Saturdays at 3:00pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays at 2:00pm and 7:00pm. Tickets are $15-$125. For tickets and information, please visit or call 415-677-9596.