The show, adapted by British actor/writer Patrick Barlow, based on the 1935 film (which itself is loosely based on John Buchan's 1915 novel), utilizes just four actors playing 100 or so characters, often in very rapid succession, as well as serving as the on-stage Foley artists, creating charmingly low-fi sound effects. The performers exist in a show-within-a-show universe as members of a 1930s theater troupe who must frantically pull their production together without any outside or technical assistance and with all the buffoonery and mishaps on full view.
The story, straight out of Hitchock's version, concerns Richard Hannay (Lance Gardner), ennui-struck and moping around his London flat. Hannay, looking for something "pointless" to kill time with, heads to the music hall for a performance by "Mr. Memory" (Cassidy Brown, in one of many roles), a man able to store vast amounts of trivia in his head. A mysterious foreign lady, Annabella (Annie Abrams), sits in the theater seat next to Hannay before abruptly stopping the show by firing a gun, asking Hannay for help, divulging that she's an agent working to thwart the smuggling of top-secret air defense plans out of the country and winding up stabbed in the back.
And we're off and running, with Hannay on the lam and desperate to both clear his own name and complete Annabella's mission. Along the way he meets classic cool Hitchcock blonde Pamela (Abrams again), Highland oddballs, villainous probable-Nazis and many more, and must endure all manner of hijinks — from hanging off a train bridge to impersonating a milkman — during his fugitive journey from London to Scotland and back again.
Little homages to some of Hitchock's trademarks, including references to other films, are sprinkled throughout. While the plot is both silly and suspensefully exciting, the real magic is in watching the cast (rounded out by Ron Campbell, also playing countless roles), do their zany, slapstick, screwball and oh-so-British, Scottish and occasionally Germanic stuff — switching characters, accents (kudos, dialect coach Janel Miley) and costumes seemingly at the speed of light. Some of my favorite bits include the frantic moving of a road-blocking flock of sheep, an exquisitely choreographed handcuffed chase-across-the-moors routine and every time Campbell and Brown raise their hats and thank each other in the music hall.
Director Leslie Martinson and team display expert timing, with great scenic design by David Lee Cuthbert, lovely costumes by Cathleen Edwards (an important feature of this quick-change show), lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt and sound by Cliff Caruthers. And all four actors are superb, with Gardner giving Hannay the posh voice and manner reminiscent of Matt Berry in "Toast of London," and the three role switchers proving incredibly nimble. Period-and-place-appropriate music (think George Formby) helps set the scene further.
"The 39 Steps" really manages to capture the brilliance of Hitchock's style and spoof it in a way that just plain works. It's all much better experienced than read about, so my best advice is to catch a performance ASAP. And take a lesson from Hannay: You never know who the mysterious stranger sitting next to you in the theater may turn out to be.
What: "The 39 Steps."
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St.
When: Through Sept. 22; show times vary.