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The telephone rings. Then it rings. Then, like an irate brat, the phone REALLY RINGS. And you wonder: where have I heard that progression — an everyday object grown monstrous — before? Soon it dawns. Of course, Hitch.

Alfred Hitchcock loved to infuse the familiar with mystery and danger. Be it a few crows on a telephone line or an off-the-beaten-track motel, you will never see those objects menace-free again. There are people, some say, who when taking a shower not only lock the bathroom door, they tilt a chair beneath the knob for good measure.

Hitchcock made objects hyperreal. Who knew that, up close, the presidents at Rushmore would be so chiseled?

The 39 Steps, a highly theatrical take on Hitch’s 1935 movie, has no such on-location luxury. At the La Jolla Playhouse, the show generates effects solely from four trunks, wooden chairs, a wardrobe, and four performers doing an aerobic workout that would prove tough going for the hale and buff.

In effect, the two-act, lighter-than-air comedy thriller’s an extended chase scene. It moves so fast that on a couple of occasions props miss their cues and the actors wait — staring at each other and trying to remain calm — for a telephone to ring or fog to infiltrate the stage. These aren’t technical glitches. They provide a built-in breather and become reminders of how frenetic the pace actually is: each performer must run at least 39 steps every few seconds.

The play begins in stasis. Dressed in walnut-colored tweeds (and sporty argyle socks, no less), Richard Hannay confesses that his life adds up to zilch. Were he to die today, he says, stroking his pencil mustache, even he wouldn’t miss himself. So, he decides to do something “mindless and trivial, utterly pointless”: go to the theater. Next thing he knows, the footlit fantasy world launches him on a nonstop chain reaction that will test not only his mettle but also his stamina. In a smoky German accent, the alluring Anabella assures him that he’s become “een-woll-wed.”

In a way, the movie (and original 1915 book by John Buchan) is a kind of Alice in Wonderland, only Hannay goes through the looking glass of theater into the surreal world of espionage, where nothing is what it seems and, thanks to one Hitchcockian touch after another, where everyone, and -thing, becomes suspect. Can you trust your neighbor? Is your box of popcorn…safe?

It’s tempting to accuse the globe-sized Master of Suspense of profound negativity. But amid this reactionary worldview, in The 39 Steps, North by Northwest, and others, Hitchcock always plunks an untested, unpromising hero. Somehow he pulls through, an endangered platinum blonde at his side, and goodness triumphs over escalating odds.

At the Playhouse, the four performers face an added threat: they must concoct reality as they go along. Much of the fun comes from what seem spontaneous inventions. The script threw them into this situation, but movies edit transitions. The actors are live. They can’t just cut away and proceed anew: so how does Hannay get out from under the dead body flopped across his chair? Practical solutions often evoke the most laughs.

The movie says Hannay must escape through a window. But the production’s humble budget can only afford a fairly small window frame. How Hannay (the agile Ted Deasy) climbs through it is as warped as anything in Wonderland.

The play also spoofs big effects. Hannay flees to Edinburgh on a tiny red train, choo-chooing across the stage. As he crosses a Scottish loch on Nessie’s back, a silhouette of Alfred Hitchcock makes his mandatory appearance on a hillside (titles of his movies have cameos all evening, often in groaners). At the same time, the makeshift means work surprisingly well. Kevin Adams’s lighting creates terrific homages to the black-and-white (and pre-noir, somewhat German Expressionist) look of the movie. Faces lit from stark angles, amid gulfs of darkness, combined with smoke so active it’s almost another character, often turn the stage into the Real Deal.

How many characters do the four actors play? Estimates range from 130 to 150. And since Ted Deasy’s the harassed Hannay throughout, the other three tackle the 129 (or 149) others. They make so many quick changes that backstage must resemble a sale-table frenzy at Nordys. Claire Brownell’s roles range from the sultry to, in a touching portrait of a Scottish woman, the truly forlorn. Scott Parkinson and Eric Hissom flit from character to character like jumping beans. They create so many instantly credible beings, Parkinson and Hissom must dream in multiple personalities.

The 39 Steps, adapted by Patrick Barlow
La Jolla Playhouse, UCSD
Directed by Maria Aitken; cast: Claire Brownell, Ted Deasy, Eric Hissom, Scott Parkinson; scenic and costume design, Peter McKintosh; lighting, Kevin Adams; sound, Mic Pool
Playing through September 13; Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Sunday at 7:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m. 858-550-1010.

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