Not since Mel Brooks served up the movies of Alfred Hitchcock like so much chopped liver in "High Anxiety" has the master of suspense been more comically garroted than he is in "The 39 Steps," the latest attraction at the Laguna Playhouse.
And, as he did with Brooks, Hitch probably would give a big thumbs up to "Steps" creator Patrick Barlow, if the master were still around to appreciate the tribute. Barlow even titles his farcical funfest "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps."
This four-character exercise in creative satire moves at the speed of a runaway train, so you may require a second viewing to fully appreciate it. To begin with, four actors portray all of the characters in Hitchcock's 1935 flick, which was made before he crossed the pond for "Rebecca" and stayed on, memorably.
The skeleton of the movie's plot has been retained, along with some of the verbatim dialogue, but director Kevin Bigger turns the tempo level to the comedic boiling point as three of the performers assume varying identities — some changing costumes virtually at the speed of light — and manage to instantly establish their characters before slipping into the next guise.
As the only actor maintaining a single character, Dan Fenaughty establishes the show's breakneck pace in what would become one of Hitchcock's screen trademarks — a "civilian" thrust into danger and intrigue (see Cary Grant in "North by Northwest" or James Stewart' in "The Man Who Knew Too Much").
Fenaughty is off and running by the second scene, when a mysterious Russian woman, Larissa Klinger, who plays two other roles, arrives at his flat only to fall victim to a stabbing pain in the back. From that point on, Fenaughty, like Grant, is the subject of a huge manhunt by a subversive cabal with the play's title as its identity.
He encounters Klinger in two other forms — as the sultry, luscious Annabella and the rustic, pliable Margaret. Klinger skillfully establishes each of her triumvirate of identities with individualism and polish, handling a wisecrack as smoothly as she does a knee in the groin.
The other two players — who share well over 100 character identities — are billed simply as Clown No. 1 and Clown No. 2, and are riotously interpreted by Nicholas Wilder and Tobias Shaw. These superlative supernumeraries maintain the frenetic pace the show demands and are primarily responsible for its ultimate success.
Hitchcock fans also should be able to pick out myriad references to the master's many suspense movies, and a few even may be startled by a few riffs from a Bernard Hermann score, Hermann being Hitch's favorite composer.
Against a scenic backdrop designed by Peter McKintosh, who also created the terrific costumes, these "39 Steps" are nonstop hilarity. If your sense of humor runs to shows like "Bullshot Crummond," you'll relish this rollicking farcical tribute at the Laguna Playhouse.
If You Go
What: "Alfred Hitchcock's The 39 Steps"
Where: Laguna Playhouse, 606 Laguna Canyon Road
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays with weekend matinees at 2 p.m.; also at 7 p.m. Oct. 7 and 3 p.m. Oct 11; show runs through Oct. 21.
Cost: $31 to $65
Information: (949) 497-2787