Review: ‘The 39 Steps’ at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley is fast-paced and frolicking

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(L to R) Cassidy Brown, Ron Campbell, Annie Abrams and Lance Gardner make up a skilled four-person cast in the TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of “The 39 Steps” in Mountain View. (Kevin Berne photo)

Alfred Hitchcock was never one to shy away from a great quote. That one about actors and cattle immediately comes to mind. And in finding a humdinger to best describe TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s fantabulous farce “The 39 Steps,” this one might be the most apt:

“If it’s a good movie, the sound could go off and the audience would still have a perfectly clear idea of what was going on.”

The company’s take on Hitchcock’s 1935 classic film finds strength in its showcase of style, seamlessly shepherded by director Leslie Martinson. The four-member cast is splendid, with three of those members playing multiple roles and a live foley that keeps the show moving with riveting bravado.

It’s a relatively banal evening for Richard Hannay (the ubiquitous Lance Gardner), who is taking in some low-brow entertainment in the form of Mr. Memory (a breakneck speed turn from Cassidy Brown) and his partner (a ferocious Ron Campbell). As the duo mystifies and stupefies the gullible folks who encompass the space, shots ring out, causing quite the ruckus.

Immediately, the lovely Annabella Schmidt (a wonderful Annie Abrams) dashes into Richard’s arms driven by the fear of those shots, gets herself to his flat and lets him know she is a spy being chased by those who want to kill her. That threat comes from a plot she uncovered to steal vital British military information, speaking vaguely about something called the “39 Steps.” And as this phrase swirls around Richard’s head, a quizzical number and word combo that becomes even more vague due to a knife that was plunged in Annabella’s back, a madcap caper and wild chase is set in motion.

The production is greeted with two dynamics that are delightful in their execution, and that is the commitment to style and nuance. While Gardner’s character is the home base that everyone hovers around and Abrams portrays a few more, All four take turns playing the scene stealer.

This works because the rules of farce and spoof are far and wide. A simple hat change, a quick switch of a coat, even a smooth rack of coats that turns into a three-person chorus, all of it flying towards the audience with a vicious quickness makes for the most delightful efficacy of this production. Even though the plot is pretty darn convoluted if you aren’t terribly familiar with any of the source material, plotting is not necessarily the point of this wildly inventive farce.

Take the role of Hannay, with so many eloquent and pithy touches from a seasoned stage veteran such as Gardner. The bumbling bumbler darts and dashes into constant dangerous situations that would make a cat envious of all the lives this guy gets. His is a world of porters, coppers, the quintessential Hitchcock blonde and touchstones that delve into the most delightful of leit motifs, the Hitchcock cameo.

It is wildly fun to run into these little moments that include the shower of “Psycho,” the crop dusters of “North by Northwest” and the belly of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents.” And that fun is all presented on Martinson’s incredible playground that is the stage at the Mountain View Center for Performing Arts, where every possible laugh, physical or otherwise is squeezed out.

That squeezing isn’t terribly hard for stage veterans Brown and Campbell, who run north and south, east and west. They are a big reason why the production achieves complete unification – the total commitment to style. Accents fly with varying degrees of hilarious success; mouths are agape in shock at the latest close call and transitions from moment to moment, even if those moments require both actors to play multiple characters in the same scene.

All of this happens on a loaded set design by David Lee Cuthbert. And in one of the most awkward touches of all, a clock keeps real time and sits above the stage. That is, until it doesn’t.

Comedy is a hard. But when you’re acting in a show where the jackets and hats are also hilarious, you’re probably dispelling that notion with a quickness.

Just close your ears and see for yourself.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “The 39 Steps”
Adapted by Patrick Barlow
From the novel by John Buchan
From the movie of Alfred Hitchcock
Directed by Leslie Martinson
The Word: It’s a quick moving laugh fest filled with skilled actors at all the skill position. You might not get all the plot, but you’ll get plenty of everything else.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Extended through Sept. 22nd
Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts
500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA
Running Time: Two hours, with a 15-minute intermission
Tickets range from $30 – $100
For tickets, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org

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