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THEATER REVIEW: “The 39 Steps” at Lamb’s Players

A man mistaken for a murderer goes on the run in “The 39 Steps,” a wildly inventive, nonstop homage to and satire of both the Hitchcock film of the same name and the great man himself.

Deborah Gilmour Smyth directs four actors – David S. Humphrey, Kelsey Venter, Jesse Abeel and Robert Smyth – who collectively play some 150 roles in this rollicking comedy, through Sept. 22 at Lamb’s Players Theatre in Coronado.

Richard Hannay (Humphrey), bored almost to the point of suicide, decides to do something “mindless and pointless” – go to the theater, where he encounters not just entertainer Mr. Memory (a purveyor of memory tricks) but frantic seatmate Annabella Schmidt (Venter, with heavy accent), who asks to spend the night in Hannay’s apartment. There she reveals that she is a foreign spy trying to save the world from unspecified bad dudes. When she turns up dead the next morning, Hannay is on the run.

Humphrey has the luxury of playing protagonist Hannay. Venter plays three women: Annabella; proper Brit Pamela and Margaret, repressed wife of a prayer-spouting Scottish farmer. It falls to Jesse Abeel and Robert Smyth to play the other 146-plus roles, often in mind-bogglingly rapid succession.

This play depends on physical comedy, props like hats and the ability to switch accents – as well as costumes – on a dime. It invites imaginative or just plain goofy treatment. Characters cross and double-cross each other, furniture appears out of nowhere (actually rolled down one of the voms at a pretty good clip); the audience gets to imagine Hannay jumping out a train window, hoisting himself hand over hand to the point where he can clamber up onto the top of the train.

The Scots – with their indecipherable accents – come in for a drubbing, and there are numerous references to other Hitchcock films. For example, Pamela, climbing a ladder, says “I can’t. It’s too high. I get vertigo.”

It’s all great fun, spearheaded by Humphrey’s reluctant (and rather clueless) hero Hannay. Venter is a hoot as three very different women. But the prize goes to Abeel and Smyth, who are on the run (even more than Humphrey) the whole evening. Abeel has a great time with Mr. Memory and various women, cops and others; Smyth gets to threaten, bluster, say the world’s longest and most depressing blessing and play an old man.

Silly? Yes. Fun? Oh, yes indeed.

The details

“The 39 Steps” plays through Sept. 22 at Lamb’s Players Theatre, 1142 Orange Ave. in Coronado.

Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 pm; Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 4 and 8 pm; Sunday at 2 pm.

Tickets: (619) 437-6000 or HERE.

To read more reviews by SDGLN Theater Critic Jean Lowerison, click HERE.