Hitchcock with a Comic Twist: Third Avenue Playhouse’s Production of “The 39 Steps”

(Left to right) Ryan Schabach Ryan Patrick Shaw, and Amy Ensign star in ‘The 39 Steps.’ Photo by Edward DiMaio.

I wish I would have leapt to my feet to clap and cheer loudly at the conclusion of the opening night performance of Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps at Third Avenue Playhouse, but the space in the 84-seat Studio Theater is so intimate I decided to save my enthusiasm for this review.

I entered the theater a doubter. I’m a Hitchcock fan. Don’t know how many times I’ve seen his 1935 film The 39 Steps starring Robert Donat and Madeleine Carroll, but more than most I’d be willing to bet. (Some in attendance at opening night obviously had never seen the movie because they registered surprise when Richard Hannay returns in Act 2 after being shot by the digit-shy spy at the end of Act 1, not knowing that the hymnal in the pocket of the stolen coat Hannay is wearing absorbed the bullet.)

How, I wondered, can four actors pull off a story that begins and ends in a packed theater, includes a cross-country train trip, a jump from a Scottish rail bridge, a chase across the Scottish moors, spies, gunplay and, of course, murder.

Murder has always been part of theater, but the other stuff seemed like it would require too much suspension of disbelief to make the story come to life.

Unless you do it with great humor.

So this stage version is both an incredibly faithful retelling of the Hitchcock movie and a parody of it.

Ryan Schabach’s pipe smoking, eye-rolling Richard Hannay is superb. Nice ’stache!

Kay Allmand has the responsibility of playing three key female roles, beginning with a mysterious spy who dies in Hannay’s lap. Allmand invests that character, Annabella Schmidt, with a crazed Euro accent that is a direct descendant of Cloris Leachman’s bizarre accent in Young Frankenstein, with maybe a schmear of Kenneth Mars’ accent as the author of Springtime for Hitler in The Producers. All good lineage.

Ryan Patrick Shaw and Amy Ensign, billed as Clown #1 and Clown #2 respectively, play all the other characters – cops, henchmen, lingerie salesmen, train employees, innkeepers, newsboy, milkman, villains, spies. That means lightning-quick costume changes for these two, some of which happen right before your eyes, and a wide variety of voices and accents. Both provide plenty of comic relief. Shaw’s turn as the wife of the villain is a high point for him, and Ensign is magnetic in all of her many roles.

Shaw also handled the role of sound designer. Sound gags are as important to this production as sight gags, so bravo for that as well.

What really boggles the mind about this production is that not only do these four actors convincingly pull off all the dialogue and action of the movie, but they are also the stagehands, responsible for arranging simple props to represent a room of a house in this scene, a train carriage in the next, a four-seat passenger car in another. It makes the head swim thinking how long the four actors and director James Valcq worked on making it all happen so seamlessly.

Another big plus for Hitchcock fans is that this play includes a soundtrack featuring music from several Hitchcock movies, with emphasis on those scored by the great Bernard Herrmann – Vertigo, Psycho, The Man Who Knew Too Much, North By Northwest (although I could have done without the pre-performance audience singalong to “Que Sera Sera,” which Doris Day sang in Hitchcock’s 1956 Hollywood remake of his 1934 British film The Man Who Knew Too Much). We also hear Gounod’s Funeral March for a Marionette, perhaps more popularly known as the theme song to the TV series Alfred Hitchcock Presents (1955-65).

After it was all done, I wondered what would Hitch think of this Tony Award-winning play, which earned the distinction of being Broadway’s longest running comedy when it hit the 500th performance mark on May 19, 2009. I can almost hear his wry drawl, applying his take on film criticism to this production: “A good film [or, in this instance, play] is when the price of the dinner, the theater admission and the babysitter were worth it.”

I think you will find that applies here.

Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps runs through Oct. 20 at Third Avenue Playhouse, Sturgeon Bay. For times and ticket information, call 920.743.1760 or visit