If Alfred Hitchcock and Monty Python had ever joined forces to create a show for the theater, the result, most probably, would resemble the high-energy, low-comedy attraction currently on the stage of the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
“Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps,” a British spy thriller created by novelist John Buchan in 1915 and dramatized in Hitchcock’s 1935 movie, was further adapted by Patrick Barrlow in 2005 as a bullet-paced frenetic farce in which four actors portray a plethora of characters and everything around them goes bat-guano crazy.
It’s a Herculean challenge for all involved, but director Chris Mertan and his industrious quartet are decidedly up to the task, aided immeasurably by Daniel Mertan’s cinematic effects which, at one point, include the classic crop duster scene from Hitchcock’s “North by Northwest.”
Set in England and Scotland a few years before World War II, the plot revolves around Sir Alfred’s familiar theme of a hapless everyman character thrust into a melange of intrigue. The play’s title is what Hitch would refer to as a “McGuffin,” the mysterious element sought by forces of both good and evil.
The central figure of Richard Hannay, wanted by police for a murder he didn’t commit, is expertly interpreted by Aaron Alford who injects into the role a healthy dose of righteous indignation (think Cary Grant in “Northwest”) and steers the manic comedy through a maze of outlandish exercises.
Caroline Jones beautifully plays the three mysterious women in his adventure: a Mata Hari spy type, a rural Scottish housewife and the feisty lady locked (literally) to him in the show’s climactic chapter. Her virtuosity is admirable, as is her sharp comedic timing.
The other two actors in the play, billed simply as “clowns,” contribute an immense body of work in a staggering number of roles. Peter Hilton and Michael Kaye assume these assignments with astonishing energy, switching personas in a matter of seconds to enact cops, bad guys and, on occasion, female characters.
To put the audience in a 1935 mood, before the play begins, the playhouse screens old movie scenes and vintage cartoons from the period. Admirers of modern animation will cringe at the sight of what once passed for cartoon comedy.
“The 39 Steps” may both amuse and confuse playgoers, but Hitchcock fans should relish the experience. It’s an 80-year throwback spiced with 21st century showmanship at the Costa Mesa Playhouse.
IF YOU GO
What: “Alfred Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps”
Where: Costa Mesa Playhouse, 661 Hamilton St., Costa Mesa
When: Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., Sundays at 2 p.m., through Sept. 15
Cost: $20 to $22
Information: (949) 650-5269; CostaMesaPlayhouse.com