From left, Cassidy Brown, Ron Campbell, Annie Abrams and Lance Gardner dazzle in TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s “The 39 Steps.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Slapstick heaven in TheatreWorks’ ‘39 Steps’

Quartet of actors awe in fast-paced comedy

The inspired romp that is TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s second production of “The 39 Steps” (its first was in 2011) owes its sparkle less to Patrick Barlow’s script — it’s a pretty silly spoof, after all — than to the four top-notch comic actors under Leslie Martinson’s razor-sharp direction.

The 1935 Alfred Hitchcock thriller reimagined a 1915 novel by John Buchan. Barlow’s stage version is actually a rewrite of a previous British stage version that combined both novel and film, but Barlow more specifically harkened to the film in his adaptation, which went on to Broadway. It’s so finely tuned, though, that there’s no sense of its cumbersome century’s worth of previous incarnations.

The context is faintly metatheatrical: The performers arrive at the theater to find that the rest of the cast is missing and realize they have to play all the roles themselves.

Set in the 1930s in the U.K., it includes just about every familiar trope of black-and-white early Hitchcock films, and frequently makes jokey references to such classics as “The Birds” and “Psycho,” even using some movie soundtracks to good effect; the sound design is by Cliff Caruthers.

There’s the handsome leading man (an ever-so-serious and self-important Lance Gardner) who’s inadvertently caught up in a mysterious and deadly plot; a gruesome murder; a high-tension train ride; a femme fatale (Annie Abrams); a tart-tongued blonde (shape-shifting Abrams again); a daring escape involving handcuffs and strange bodily contortions; a predictable romance; a German with a cigarette holder and a monocle (witty costumes by Cathleen Edwards); a scary car ride (obstructed, hilariously, by bleating sheep) and much more.

Best of all are two actors, the great comic talents Ron Campbell and Cassidy Brown, making viewers heads spin as they play so many small roles, some seemingly simultaniously: Scotsmen with incomprehensible brogues, bumbling cops, shrill housekeepers, chattering voices on the telephone, spies, bearded and doddering geezers, train conductors, villains and vaudevillians.

Scenes switch from a London music hall (complete with small stage and upper balconies; the elegant set is by David Lee Cuthbert) to the Scottish highlands as our world-weary hero tries to escape the law and discover what, exactly, those 39 steps are.

But the plot is incidental. The great fun is in watching Martinson’s four well-chosen actors, especially the slapstick antics of Brown and Campbell, who can switch costumes and characters faster than brains can process the changes.


The 39 Steps

Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley

Where: Center for Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View

When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes Sept. 15

Tickets: $30 to $100

Contact: (650) 463-1960,

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