Review: The 39 Steps

Alfred Hitchcock loved “The MacGuffin.” For those unfamiliar, a “MacGuffin” is a plot device that the protagonist pursues, usually with little or no narrative explanation. What is the secret of this year’s Alley Theatre “Summer Chills” production ALFRED HITCHCOCK’S THE 39 STEPS? It doesn’t really matter. What they’re pursuing isn’t the point – in this case getting there is ALL the fun.

Hitchcock made dozens of great films including PSYCHO, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, REAR WINDOW, and VERTIGO. In less than two hours, a cast of four actors tell the story of THE 39 STEPS, following, more or  less, the plot of the Hitchcock film of the same name. Along the way, they pay tribute in some subtle (and some NOT so subtle) ways to many films of the great director. Fans of Hitch and his movies will find many Easter eggs to enjoy, but a knowledge of the films is not required to enjoy this excellent production.

Alley Resident Company members Todd Waite and Elizabeth Bunch lead the cast of four with Waite portraying Richard Hannay and Bunch stellar in three different roles. Waite is perfect as Hannay, a man on the run after one of Bunch’s three characters is killed in his London flat. As he tries to clear his name, he becomes entangled in a ring of spies trying to smuggle something (the aforementioned MacGuffin) out of England. His journey to clear his name takes him throughout England and Scotland, where he encounters policemen, spies, a Scottish couple who own an inn, theatre performers and many more characters — all played by two actors. Yes, you read that right. The entire ensemble – dozens of characters – are played by actors Bruce Warren (in his Alley debut) and Mark Price. They are the heart of this piece, cleverly switching costumes and accents quickly and often right in front of the audience. The applause for their antics stopped the show several times at my performance.

The staging of THE 39 STEPS is brilliant, using projections to re-enact famous scenes from the Hitchcock films or re-arranging footlockers on the stage to create train cars, automobiles and other set pieces. The references to Hitchcock films range from the very subtle (you’ll have to look around for references to DIAL M FOR MURDER and THE BIRDS) to the very obvious (scenes from PSYCHO and NORTH BY NORTHWEST are hilariously and cleverly reproduced). The music cues borrow from the films as well, with one thematic nod to the TV series ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS when the director makes a “cameo” in the show. The show is mostly fast-paced with lots of laughs, although one scene mid-way through Act II did drag just a bit.

This is an all-around excellent production, but worth the ticket price alone to watch four terrific actors tackle over 150 eccentric characters. Even after seeing the show, I’m not 100% sure what THE 39 STEPS are or what their goal is, but that’s not the point. The journey is the important part — and it’s a wonderful ride.

****1/2 out of *****
“Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps”
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
Directed by Mark Shanahan
Alley Theatre
Extended through September 3rd
Photo: Todd Waite as Richard Hannay, Bruce Warren as Man #1, Mark Price as Man #2, and Elizabeth Bunch as Pamela, Annabella and Margaret in “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” at the Alley Theatre


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