Actors' Playhouse Takes on Hitchcock's The 39 Steps with Jokes

Photo by Tony Firriolo, courtesy of Orlando Shakespeare Theater
Photo by Tony Firriolo, courtesy of Orlando Shakespeare Theater

Of all of Alfred Hitchcock's films, his 1935 classic The 39 Steps would probably be the most difficult to bring to the theater stage. Yet that is exactly what the Actors' Playhouse is doing by presenting one of Hitch's first masterpieces. It's a spy thriller that has it all: murder, secret organizations, conspiracies, and dudes in wigs.

"It's an exciting adventure story," says Jim Helsinger, artistic director of Orlando Shakespeare Theater and director of Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps. "It's a precursor to the James Bond type films that would later become so popular. Plus it also has some humor in it that many of us don't think of when we think of Hitchcock."

The 39 Steps tells the story of average-joe Richard Hannay. One night, he meets a mysterious woman whom he brings to his apartment. Next thing he knows, she's dead with knife in her back and a map in her hand. Thus Hannay is thrust into one of Hitch's favorite go-to plot lines: the innocent everyman on the run trying to unravel a mystery.

When we think of Hitchcock, most of us think about getting stabbed in the shower or killer birds or Jimmy Stewart in a wheelchair peepin' on a lady through a window. But The 39 Steps was one of the first espionage flicks with chase scenes, double-crosses, and with an added dash of humor and wit.

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It would been something of a challenge to adapt complex thrillers like Psycho or Rear Window for the theater, but it's all together ballsy to bring a film that features multiple exotic locations as well as train and plane crashes to the stage. Throw in the fact that it's just four actors playing about 150 different parts, and you've really got something. "Hitchcock is not all horror thrillers," Helsinger says. "I think the combination of adventure and comedy really suits The 39 Steps."

Described as Monty Python meets Hitchcock, the multi-Tony Award winning play is essentially farce, taking one of Hitch's classics and giving it a comedic twist with a frenetic pace that adds to the tension of the plot. But the production doesn't skimp or strip down the adaptation in any way. "We do everything in the film," Helsinger says. "Almost all the lines, characters, and scenes. And for this particular show, there are so many characters, locations, and situations that it seems almost impossible to stage for the theater, which oddly becomes the comic advantage."

Filled with laughs, split-second wardrobe changes, inventive stagecraft, and a deft defying finale, the Playhouse's Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps is a unique way of experiencing an all-time classic.

Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps opens at the Actors' Playhouse (280 Miracle Mile, Coral Gables) Wednesday at 8:00 p.m. and runs through June 5. Tickets are $35. Call 305-444-9293 or visit

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