PICK ASR Theater ~~ “The 39 Steps”, Mystery Thriller and Comic Farce at SF Playhouse

By Susan Dunn

Even before the story from the famous film begins, missteps, gags, mockery, parody, double-takes, and more abound in The 39 Steps at San Francisco Playhouse.

Our leading man appears, apparently ready to begin the show, then is blacked out by the lighting, comes back into view, then falls asleep in a chair while SFP Artistic Director Bill English gives the welcoming speech. What’s happening? Are they confused? Are they ready for opening night?

You bet!

It’s the audience that should be ready to exhilarate in two hours plus of clowning and buffoonery animating Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of a Hitchcock classic.

… Highly recommended to recharge your funny bone…

The 39 Steps is a classic noir narrative which started with a 1915 novel, was adapted in 1935 by Alfred Hitchcock, and from there morphed into new films, TV series, a radio play, and a stage comedy. It’s a popular and easily adapted story that has proven its popularity time after time. Its secret is a mystery thriller base that has been freely adapted with new or excised material in subsequent renditions.

Richard Hannay (Phil Wong) is captivated by the mysterious Anabella (Maggie Mason) in “The 39 Steps,” presented by San Francisco Playhouse March 7 – April 20.
Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

The story revolves around the stylish character Richard Hannay, marvelously played by Phil Wong, as he falls into one unlikely scenario after another. The action follows his path from falsely accused murderer to international spy-ring exposer and hero. It snakes from London to Scotland and back again with a cast of 150 characters, according to SF Playhouse. (I confess I lost count.)These roles are hilariously and frantically embodied by three superb actors.

Lithe and intense Maggie Mason shows us the women in Hannay’s life: Annabella, the spy whom Hannay is accused of murdering; Pamela, the girl on the train whom he first meets by attacking her with kisses; and Margaret, the collier’s wife who helps him escape from murderous thugs. Greg Ayers showcases a multitude of male and female roles with comic physical and facial wit that continually inspires laughter, as do his double takes for additional laughs. He both opens and closes the show with an important character, Mister Memory, and his shenanigans expand this role with his stage antics.

Richard Hannay (center – Phil Wong) is apprehended by two policemen (l to r: Renee Rogoff and Greg Ayers) as Pamela (Maggie Mason) denies association in “The 39 Steps,” presented by SF Playhouse. Photo Credit: Jessica Palopoli

Covering another bevy of parts, including a squadron of police and thugs, a ruthless power-hungry professor, and a dour innkeeper, Renee Rogoff seems to appear in every other scene in new costume or aspect. One of the funniest moments occurs when Mason, Ayers and Rogoff miraculously turn into six marching bagpipers immersing Wong in one of his many escape moves – a showcase for the inspired direction by Susi Damilano.

Like icing on a delicious cake, the lighting design, sound effects, costumes, projections and puppetry mesh together with the clowning to create a play that is a many-layered spoof. The 39 Steps is a farce that skims ever so lightly over themes of fate, chance, romance and ultimately human empathy. This production is a delight for all the senses. Highly recommended to recharge your funny bone.



Since arriving in California from New York in 1991, Susan Dunn has been on the executive boards of Hillbarn Theatre, Altarena Playhouse, Berkeley Playhouse, Virago Theatre and Island City Opera, where she is a development director and stage manager. An enthusiastic advocate for new productions and local playwrights, she is a voting member of the SF Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle, and a recipient of a 2015 Alameda County Arts Leadership Award. Contact: susanmdunn@yahoo.com

ProductionThe 39 Steps
Sourced byPlay Adaptation by Patrick Barlow...

From the Novel by John Buchan...

From the Movie by Alfred Hitchcock
Directed bySusi Damilano
Producing CompanySan Francisco Playhouse
Production DatesThru April 20th
Production AddressSF Playhouse
450 Post Street
San Francisco, CA
Telephone(415) 677-9596
Tickets$15 - $100
Reviewer ScoreMax in each category is 5/5
Aisle Seat Review Pick?YES!