Comedy with a Hitch – a review of “39 Steps”

By Michael Buzzelli

Young and Innocent Richard Hannay (Ryan Warsing) is framed for the murder of a secret agent, Annabella (Rachel Pfennigwerth in several roles), and he must smash the ring of saboteurs to clear his name in “The 39 Steps.”

When Hannay goes to the theater, Annabella sits next to him. They watch Mr. Memory (Trevor Buda in a multitude of roles) spout facts on a variety of subjects. But Annabella, a foreign correspondent, is filled with suspicion as she sits in the theater. Fearing for her life, she begs Richard to take her home – to his home!

At his apartment (he’s just the lodger), she tells him of the rich and strange Mr. Jordan (Kendall Mason in a variety of roles) who is living in Scotland. He is the key to the 39 steps. Richard tries to seduce Annabella, but she is not a woman of easy virtue. However, in the middle of the night she is murdered – stabbed by some psycho. Now, Richard is framed for murder. He flees north by northwest – to Scotland to discover the secret of the 39 steps.

He meets strangers on a train. One stranger is Pamela (Pfennigwerth again), and she alerts the authorities when she realizes he’s a notorious killer.  Chaos ensues as the cops chase Hannay around the locomotive. He is in a frenzy as he tries to escape the police.

Soon, he’s handcuffed to Pamela and the check into a hotel room as Mr. and Mrs. Smith. The cops show up there, but the farmer’s wife saves them. Pamela begins to have a shadow of a doubt that Richard is innocent. She helps him to catch a thief.

Strangers on a train – The cast of 39 Steps: Ryan Warsing, Kendall Mason, Trevor Buda and Rachel Pfennigwerth.

Patrick Barlow takes the novel, “The 39 Steps” and skewers it, poking fun of the Alfred Hitchcock film, his film library and just about everything else.

Scott Calhoon directs a madcap production of the show. It’s frenetic and crazy with a marvelous cast. The getaway action scene on the train is a piece of theatrical genius.

Kudos to Dialect Coach Lisa Bansavage for getting her actors to speak in dozens of accents.

Warsing is delightful as the charming Hannay.

Pfennigwerth is quickly becoming a Prime Stage favorite. She nails several roles with aplomb (and looks amazing while doing it).

Mason and Buda do a lot of the heavy lifting. They play every other role in the play. It’s amazing. Buda’s Mr. Memory is especially impressive when he rattles off a top-secret formula. Mason plays a hilarious villain seemingly inspired by Mike Myers’ Dr. Evil.

Barlow’s fat script could use a diet. While it’s a bit long for a comedy, it has some killer moments – literally and figuratively!

Don’t look for logic in “39 Steps.” As Hitchcock once said, “There is one thing more important than logic. Imagination.” Prime Stage’s version of “The 39 Steps” is nothing if not wildly imaginative.

Note: Take the kids. The might not understand all of the puns that are thrown from the stage, but they will enjoy the whimsical and silly show. It’s fun for all ages.


“39 Steps” runs until May 14 at the New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square, Pittsburgh, PA 15212. For more information, click here

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