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39 Steps - Well Worth the Climb

A Scene from 39 Steps Rachel Pfennigwerth (top left), Ryan Warsing (top rt.), Trevo Buda and Kendall Mason (bottom Credit: courtesy photo

    To acquaint myself with the play 39 Steps, now getting a Prime Stage production at the New Hazlett Theater on Pittsburgh‘s North Side, I made a point of first watching the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock directed film of the same name. After screening the film, I was left wondering just how Prime Stage would be able to recreate the multitude of locations and characters of the film on stage.

    Scenes included in the play are a vaudeville theater, a London apartment, a train station, a train ride to Scotland, a rail bridge, a Scottish sheep farm, a Scottish peasant’s cottage, a mansion, a small hotel in the Highlands, a police station and, finally, full circle, back to the original vaudeville house. Each location plays a critical role in the plot as do the stream of multiple characters associated with them.

    In addition to the James Bond-like character, Richard Hannay, played remarkably well by Ryan Warsing, there’s a Mata Hari-type spy named Annabelle (played with over the top femme fatale pizzazz by Rachel Pfennigwerth in a couple of vamp-ish roles). The dramatis personae also includes a sheriff, policemen, foreign agents, newsboys, farmers, train conductors, sheep farmers, innkeepers, traveling salesmen and more. All of these contribute to the furtherance of the plot and none seem able to be edited out of the script.

    As you might suspect, my curiosity was piqued, and I wanted to see close at hand just how Prime Stage would handle these logistical challenges.

    No sweat! Turns out the actors, who played numerous roles, and director, Scott Calhoon, were up to the challenge. Shades of The Mystery of Irma Vepp, that Gothic melodrama noted for its quick-change artistry of two actors who portray multiple characters, 39 Steps, in a similar vein, is fortunate to have cast two talents with chameleon-like, quick change abilities. I don’t know which protean actor I liked better, Trevor Buda as Mr. Memory, a performer with a near photographic memory, or Kendall Mason as the formidable bad guy, Mr. Jordan.

    Telling you the theater cheats a bit in its attempts to recreate, or in this case, suggest the various locations, is a gross misrepresentation of fact. What they do to create a sense of place with some carefully synchronized, lightning-fast prop changes is absolute artistry. Experiencing the swift movement of visual clues on and off stage is pure entertainment in and of itself and requires the same sort of skill set needed by the royal retinue to carry off King Charles III’s coronation last week.

    If you’re thinking you’ll be seeing the same retelling of the story about espionage in pre-World War  One England as in the Hitchcock film, think again. This is a larky, farcical adaptation by Patrick Barlow that will leave you laughing in the aisles and relishing the special moments like when a couple of radar controlled sheep represent the flock of ovines in the film that help save the day for Hannay and the recreation of a lively party at the mansion implied by some clever backlighting on a plain white to produce dancing silhouettes.

    One thing Barlow did is to lift entire sections of dialogue from the now classic film and incorporate it into his script, which only goes to intensify the loopy tomfoolery he adds for farcical embellishment.

Ryan Warsing and Rachel Pfennigwerth in 39 Steps

    If you’re wondering how Warsing handles the role of Hannay, played so masterfully by Robert Donat in the film, wonder no more.  At first glance, he appears a little too young looking for the role of the quick-thinking, never fearful protagonist, but a few minutes into the play all hesitation to embracing him as Hannay vanishes. His acting skills are soon evident, and I’m looking forward to seeing him on a local stage again in the near future.

    Barlow, by the way, keeps you guessing about the term 39 steps up until the end, and there’s no letting the cat out of the bag here. Hitchcock buffs can have even more fun with the production because Prime Stage has lists of Hitchcock films on paper check off sheets in the lobby. The person who checks off the most Hitchcock films mentioned in the play, either by verbal or visual clues, can win a Flex Pass to the company’s 2023-24 season.

    But who needs an alternative excuse for seeing this wonderfully zany retelling of a classic film staged by a very formidable ensemble of theater artists anyway?

    39 Steps is at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square on Pittsburgh’s North Side, through May 14. Prime Stage Theatre will stage a special Mother's Day performance at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, May 14. One half hour before curtain, live music by cellist, Janelle Sands, will fill the lobby of the theater. For tickets, go to or 412-320-4610.


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