"The 39 Steps" rises to hilarious Hitchcock heights at the Geva Theatre Center

Richard Hannay (John Gregorio) running away from an incoming bi-plane. Photo by Ken Huth The 39 Steps

Who Geva Theatre Center

Where 75 Woodbury Blvd., Rochester, NY

When Through November 17th

Tickets $45-$56

Review by Nick Reichert


The very mention of his name raises the hairs on the back of necks everywhere. One’s mind immediately flips through a montage of memorable scenes from the iconic British film director’s thrill inducing canon. Whether it’s a flock of birds stalking a young blonde or a woman taking a shower with a ominous shadow lurking just behind the curtain, Alfred Hitchock’s various visual moments have been imprinted on our cultural DNA.

The 39 Steps, by Patrick Barlow, is a comedic melodrama that converts aspects Hitchcock’s films from unquenchable fears to non-stop laughter. The play loosely resembles the plot of the Hitchcock film of the same name  in which a dashing bachelor is accused of murder while trying to defend the country from foreign enemies. But any faithful adaption of the original John Buchan novel is far from the point. The 39 Steps is a fitting tribute to the Hitch and is an amalgamation of slapstick, romantic-comedy, and chock full of inside humor.

But what makes this play stand out is that in a world full of spies, intrigue, policemen, and colorful characters enough to fill a train, the script only calls for four actors. An army of different characters in the play along with the breakneck pace of the story, the four-member ensemble could easily lose control.  The herculean efforts of the ensemble not only keep this locomotive from running off the tracks but also deliver an onslaught of laughter at every turn. By the time the curtain falls, every performer is dripping with well-deserved sweat.This kind of perspiration is a badge of honor for a comedic performer at their best.

What would a Hitchcock adventure story be without an unlucky male protagonist? Richard Hannay, played by John Gregorio, is thrust into a madcap tale of spies, Nazis and government secrets after a fateful night at the theatre. Hannay is a dashing and handsome bachelor armed with cheeky retorts and martinis. Gregorio is like fusion of Cary Grant and Charlie Chaplin. He exudes an effortless charm while sprinting through crazy comedic episodes with the grace of a trained dancer.

Richard Hannay (John Gregorio) and Annabella (Monica West) striking up a "conversation" in "The 39 Steps." Photo by Ken Huth

Monica West plays a trifecta of Hitchcock’s females: Pamela (the female companion), Annabella (a foreign femme fatale), and Margaret (the precocious countryside woman). West is a chameleon of a performer who effortlessly shifts between each role with various accents, postures and attitudes. She burns as Annabella, delights as Margaret, and is undeniable as Pamela. West is an alchemist and has molded the personas of the Hitchcock heroines of the past into one performance that drips with glee and zest.

With a reported amount of 150 characters, the main load of the characters that Hannay and Margaret encounter in their misadventures are portrayed by Aaron Muñoz and Joel Van Liew. Billed as Clown #1 and Clown #2 in the program, Muñoz and Van Liew should be labeled masters or Samurai #1 and #2. They are maestros of the costume quick change and virtuosos at physically stretching their voices, faces and personalities. Muñoz and Van Liew transform into lingerie salesmen, train porterers, newspaper boys, and constables in one scene. Because they are impressive to the point of absurdity, when Muñoz and Van Liew take their curtain call bows it’s hard to believe they are human.

Joel Van Liew (left) and Aaron Muñoz (right) jesting in "The 39 Steps." Photo by Ken Huth

The almost effortless execution of the endless string of physical comedic sequences is a credit to director Sean Daniels. Each scene’s blocking allows the rapid transitions to remain fluid. The director is at his best when his hand is invisible and Daniels’ influence floats above the production without interrupting the laughter.

Technically, the designers of the set (Michael Raiford) , costume (Jennifer Caprio), lighting (Brian J. Lilienthal), and sound (Matt Callahan) envelopes the audience into a fanciful noir world. Raiford’s skeletal scene design allows the  actors plenty of room to play. Lilienthal’s lights give a warm touch to the stage with special lighting references to satirized old-school movie moments.

The Geva Theatre Center’s production of The 39 Steps is an exercise in acrobatic hilarity and is enjoyable for even the most casual of Hitchcock hobbyists. Every breath and step the four actors take is just more space for another wink or allusion to the director himself. Like the Master of Suspense’s movies, each scene is filled with so much detail and so many references that it’s worth seeing it multiple times to catch everything. If you blink, you might miss out on all the fun.