For celebrated British actress and director Maria (pronounced “Mariah,” as in Carey) Aitken, the most rewarding thing about her success with the hit show “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps” is the reaction she witnesses from all types of audiences.
“Gray-haired people and children laugh at the same things,” says the Tony Award-nominated Aitken, who directed the stage production of the famous 1935 movie starring Robert Donat as a man on the run.
“The hero has a ludicrous charm,” says Aitken, who has seen the show travel to Australia, Japan, Israel and even South Korea, where patrons are particularly amused.
The show, which won two Tonys, a Drama Desk, and the British Laurence Olivier Award for Best Comedy, is bound to please San Francisco audiences, too. It opens this week and runs through Jan. 3 at the Curran Theatre.
Though viewers don’t necessarily need to see the movie to appreciate the actors’ talent — the play serves up wild stagecraft and laughs — Aitken says the show, a real homage to the film, follows it “almost frame by frame.” About 60 percent of the dialogue in Patrick Barlow’s script is from the film.
And, she says, “Of course Hitchcock appears.”
She admits the balance between jokes and suspense leans more toward the comedy in the live show, calling it “profoundly silly.”
Aitken, whose varied career includes acting (she’s possibly best known to Americans for her role in the 1988 movie “A Fish Called Wanda”), teaching, writing and directing, most recently has focused on comedy. While it’s more difficult to do than drama, and hard to teach, she says, “I seem to have a knack for it.”
Among the prime pleasures of “The 39 Steps” is the magic the cast of just four actors creates with no props other than smoke, trunks, ladders and clever theatricality. “Audiences enjoy watching actors working their butts off,” she says.
There are varied reasons why the show never features big-name performers, who, by their nature, can be distracting, Also, finding a TV star to do a Scottish accent, or one with incredible movement skills, is difficult, Aitken says, adding, “You cannot recast properly when you have a big star; we don’t want to have to compete with ourselves.”
Aitken, who hopes to come to The City to check out the show during the run, says, “I think all British people love San Francisco. It has real weather.”
IF YOU GO
Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps
Presented by Best of Broadway
Where: Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. most Tuesdays-Fridays; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays; 2 p.m. Wednesdays; 2 and 7:30 p.m. most Sundays; no performances Dec. 24-25; closes Jan. 3
Tickets: $35 to $80
Contact: (415) 512-7770, www.shnsf.com