Volume 3, Number 178
'There's a Jewish story everywhere'

Tuesday-Wednesday, September 1-2, 2009

ONE OF THE STEPS—Gettilng away is one of the most important steps in mystery thriller,
39 Steps. Eric Hissom (left) and Ted Deasy in La Jolla Playhouse's  production of THE 39 STEPS, adapted by Patrick Barlow, directed by  Maria Aitken, playing in the Mandell Weiss Theatre August 11 -  September 13; photo by Craig Schwartz.


39 Steps at the Mandell Weiss Theatre

By Carol Davis

LA JOLLA, California—For Alfred Hitchcock buffs, the Tony Award winning The 39 Steps currently showing at the La Jolla Playhouse, Mandell Weiss Theatre is a picnic with all the toppings and enough goodies to go around for everyone. If you’ve never heard of the great moviemaker/director Hitchcock or his 39 Steps think Rear Window, The Birds, North By Northwest, Dial M For Murder, Vertigo, Psycho
or The Paradine Case for starters. If that doesn’t work how about his television shows Alfred Hitchcock Presents that lasted about ten years.?

Hitchcock’s wry sense of humor both in the movies and on TV was evident from the outset, as each of his TV shows opened with music from Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette as the body of the rotund Hitchcock walked into a silhouetted caricature of the man himself. And he managed a cameo appearance in every one of his movies. Now, if you have no recollection of any of the above, forget I said anything and just enjoy the excellent production at the Playhouse. 

John Buchan’s 1915 book The 39 Steps with original concept by Simon Corble and Nobby Dimon and the film version were adapted for the stage by Patrick Barlow. And if that all that sounds like “Who Killed John”? You aint heard nothing yet! It is also based on the Hitchcock 1935 spy thriller of the same name. And while it’s making its West Coast premiere at The La Jolla Playhouse through Sept. 13 it has been running on Broadway in three different theatres at different times. It is currently at the Helen Hayes Theatre. We should consider ourselves lucky to have it here in La Jolla before it leaves to start its national tour.

The 39 Steps follows the same patterns most other Hitchcock thrillers are known for. It is a combination Victorian melodrama and Elizabethan drama and is said to have been the first of many of Hitchcock’s murder mysteries to set this tone. It goes something like this: lonely man (Ted Deasey is Richard Hannay) goes to theatre (Palladium to be exact) because he’s bored; man is watching a performance of Mr. Memory a man
with a photographic memory; fight breaks out, shots are fired and frightened woman in the audience is soothed by man. Girl (Claire Brownell is Annabella Schmidt/ Pamela/Margaret) convinces man to take her back to his apartment. She tells him she is a government spy and is being chased by foreign assassins.

Back at his flat she gives him some cockamamie story about stolen government secrets and that she is a being chased by the bad guys one of whom has a joint missing from one of his pinky fingers. (Clue or not?) She also reveals the conspirators are in a German espionage organization called (you guessed it) “39 Steps." The next morning girl winds up stabbed with his bread knife in her back. He finds her strewn across his lap when he wakes up in his chair. In her hand is a map of Scotland Yard. (Another clue?)  Concerned about being falsely accused of murder he takes it on the lam with the map and the chase begins.

Over the meadows and through the woods cutting across cold misty London country sides, farms, county estates, dangerous foggy sea cliffs, choo-choo-train chases from England to

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Scotland, and spooky taverns, he encounters various and sundry red herrings and a bevy of suspicious looking characters who may or may not be guilty of the crime. So far this tongue in cheek thriller is all too familiar. And when he’s being chased by the police on the train and meets a beautiful young woman and kisses her to hide from the police, we have to think North by Northwest.

That said you don’t have to be an Alfred Hitchcock fan or have to have seen any of his movies to enjoy this delicious little romp. I took my seventeen-year-old grandson who has been living in Israel all his adult life and had never heard of Hitchcock and he loved it. He knows who he is now.

The 39 Steps
is performed by only four actors (three men and one woman) at a frenetically faster than humanly possible rate of speed that by play's end leaves the audience breathless and chuckling at the same time making it more of a comedy thriller than the original movie while spoofing the movie itself. Since it is based on the movie with a few little tweaks thrown like the lightning pacing, it makes the combination a perfect storm if you will.

Director Maria Aitken and her extremely talented cast of four have used every trick of the trade imaginable from puppets, to silhouettes and back lighting (including the silhouette of Hitchcock standing on a cliff), sleight of hand, hats and coat tricks, split second costume changes, an array of accents and a shadow chase scene across the Scottish countryside (Peter McKintosh set and costume).It is packed with all the sound effects (Mic Pool) mustered to keep the show propped up and moving forward toward solving the mystery of The 39 Steps.

Ted Deasy sports the perfect look as the conservative hero who inconveniently walks into this mess somewhat on the line of Cary Grant in North by Northwest. Though not as suave as Grant, he nonetheless pulls off the role of Richard Hannay and makes it believable.

Eric Hissom is Man #1 and Scott Parkinson is Man #2. Credit them for pumping life into this endeavor. Sometimes as an audience member, I had trouble discerning who was who. Between the fast changes, hat tricks and in one particular scene, one of them had his trench coat half way on and belted at the waist in such a way that when he did a half turn it looked like there were two men talking and grappling with each other.

Hissom’s Mr. Memory is memorable as was his role of the English farmer. Among the three, two men and Brownell who plays all the females, (not including the ones by men playing women) 40 characters are either being chased, chasing after or are accusing or being accused. 

Its one jolly mayhem of an evening and one well worth seeing.

The 39 Steps, a whodunit, is making its West Coast Premiere and is co produced by Seattle Repertory Theatre. It runs through Sept. 23rd.

For more information visitlajollaplayhouse.org.

See you at the theatre. 

Davis is a theatre reviewer based in San Diego. She may be contacted at davisc@sandiegojewishworld.com

stripe Copyright 2007-2009 - San Diego Jewish World, San Diego, California. All rights reserved.

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