Front Row Reviews

“The 39 steps” sprints with suspenseful Satire

SF Playhouse breathes new life into the uproarious and fast-paced suspense, “The 39 Steps.”

John Buchan adapted the play from Patrick Barlow’s 1915 thriller novel of the same name (spelled The Thirty-Nine Steps). The play incorporates elements from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 film adaptation. Director Susi Damilano skillfully preserves Hitchcock’s dry wit and lightning-fast slapstick humor.

The story, set in the1930s London, follows the bored and discontented Richard Hannay, portrayed brilliantly by Phil Wong. Hannay’s encounter with seductive spy Annabella, played with cunning charm by Maggie Mason, leads to murder and espionage. The intrigue heightens, as often occurs in Hitchcock’s works. Annabella seeks a secret group, The 39 steps, but is found dead the next morning, with Hannay accused of her murder.

Scenic Designer Heather Kenyon’s stage is scattered with inventive props including a window frame, chairs, steering wheel, doors—all movable for fast escapes. Muti-colored lights and 30’s music artfully follow Hannay through towns, in a plane, and passengering in a car.

Maggie Mason in multiple parts

Wong shines in his portrayal of Hannay, darting from scene to scene quicker than a blink of the eye. Hannay desperately seeks to unravel the mystery of “The 39 Steps” before falling into the hands of his pursuers. Wong captures the essence of a clueless, dense, uncoordinated, but ingratiating soul constantly stumbling into hysterically funny situations.

Maggie Mason and Phil Wong as Mr. Hannay

Amazing Renee Rogoff and Greg Ayers are cast as clowns, and give spot-on portrayals of over 100 characters, an incredible feat!  The multitude of English and Scottish people include pursuing spies, hotel keepers, police officers, civilians, and various other personalities. The transitions remain smooth: handcuffs, missing fingers, and encounters with numerous women, even with the excessive exchange of multiple hats! The madcap hilarity of the performance is infectious, especially the handcuff scene.

Phil Wong , ReneeRogoff, and Greg Ayers

Hannay continues to race against time, gaining strength and conviction. He meets up with Mr. Memory, a circus-like performer played by quirky Ayers with pizzazz. Mr. Memory, also known as “Datas, The Human Encyclopedia,” commits 50 facts a day to memory, ultimately leading Hannay to his salvation. 

In SF Playhouse’s “The 39 Steps,” beneath the Hitchcock humor, the well-coordinated 30’s noir music, and suspense, we see ourselves reflected in Hannay’s plight. Every person faces moments, one time or another, feeling lost, overwhelmed, confused, and searching for answers in a chaotic world.

Damilano unfolds this Hitchcockian-Barlow suspense satire with impeccable timing and tightly coordinated moving parts. She also orchastrates a superb blending of diverse characters within each scene. It’s refreshing that SF Playhouse chose to renew the life of this timeless play.

A fun must see.

“The 39 Steps” adapted by Patrick Barlow, from the novel by John Buchan (1915) & the movie by Alfred Hitchcock (1935), directed by Susi Damilano, scenic design by Heather Kenyon, costumes by Alice Ruiz, lighting by Derek Duarte, sound by Dan Alvaro Holland, properties by Blue Hephaestus, at San Francisco Playhouse. Info: – to April 20, 2024.

Cast: Greg AyersMaggie MasonRenee Rogoff, and Phil Wong.

Photos courtesy of Jessica Palopoli