"The 39 Steps" at USC's Longstreet Theatre - a review by Jillian Owens


Do you enjoy mystery, intrigue, espionage, ridiculous accents, and fast-paced gender-bending craziness?  Do you also happen to be a fan of the films of Alfred Hitchcock? If your answers to these questions is no, just stop reading this right now (because I  probably don’t like you very much). If your answer is yes, you’re in luck! Based on the 1935 Alfred Hitchcock classic of the same name, The 39 Steps (adapted by Patrick Barlow from the novel by John Buchan) at USC’s Longstreet Theatre is almost word-for-word the same script as the film.

The plot is simple. An innocent man by the name of Richard Hannay (played by Josiah Laubenstein) meets a beautiful German woman who turns out to be a spy. She ends up murdered in his apartment, but in her last breaths warns him that he must save England from an act of terrorism that could happen at any time. He ends up blamed for her murder and must try to stop this nefarious scheme without getting caught by the police who are hot on his trail. But there’s a twist! While the words and plot are essentially the same, the play veers off into being a zany comedy that reminds one of Monty Python or Benny Hill. Oh yes...and the multiple roles of the play are played by just 4 actors.

You might think this sounds like a mean-spirited jab at Mr. Hitchcock, but it isn’t. It’s more like poking fun at a dear old friend. Overdone and campy with silly sight gags and bawdy physical comedy, The 39 Steps is hilarious. While we only see 4 actors, the multitudinous technical crew is working its crazed magic behind the scenes, with rapid-fire costume, lighting, sound, and set changes. 22 of Hitchcock’s other works are referenced in this production as well...can you spot them all?


I was a bit nervous as I entered the theatre. This production of The 39 Steps appeared  to be cursed. The ice storm of the previous week led to every theatre technician’s worst nightmare...not being able to work for five days when your show is supposed to be in technical rehearsal the week before your opening. Whether the treacherous ice that shut down USC was a result of some unsuperstitious sort uttering the name of The Scottish Play or just lousy luck, the 50+ cast and crew members of The 39 Steps were in a bind. When department chair Jim Hunter explained all of this in his pre-curtain speech, I groaned a little inside. Was this basically a pre-emptive apology for what was going to be a sloppily-executed production?  I’m pleased to say: Jim, you can scrap that speech. All of the around-the-clock last-minute building and tweaking paid off, and The 39 Steps went off without a visible or audible hiccup.

The two guest co-directors, Jim Helsinger and Brad DePlanche,prove to be a dynamic duo in executing an extremely demanding production. The set by Xuemei Cao is gorgeous and ever-changing, but it almost seemed too large for the play. The lighting design by Ashley Pittman and the sound design by Britt Sandusky were no small feats either. I’m going to do something that almost never happens in theatre reviews and congratulate the Stage Manager, Lacey Taylor, for managing and calling an extremely difficult show under some pretty scary circumstances.


But what good is a technically spot-on show without the actors to bring the story to life? Josiah Laubenstein is a fine and upstanding Richard Hannay with a talent for physical comedy. Melissa Reed handles the roles of his multiple love interests (with multiple accents) with endearing panache. Still...my favorite scenes in this production were with James Costello and Trey Hobbs who played countless characters. It’s rare to see two actors who have such a great comedic chemistry together. I overheard several audience members (who apparently don’t read their programs) ask, “Are they brothers?”

The 39 Steps is one of the funniest shows I’ve seen in over a decade, and definitely one of my favorite Theatre South Carolina Productions. Unfortunately, this show has a very limited run and this is your last weekend to catch it, which I hope you will. You’ll have a frightfully fun time.

~ Jillian Owens

Show times are 8pm Wednesday-Friday, and 7pm Saturday. There is an additional half-price late night performance on the final Saturday, March 1. Tickets for the production are $12 for students, $16 for USC faculty/staff, military personnel and seniors 60+, and $18 for the general public. Tickets can be purchased in advance by calling 803-777-2551 or by visiting the Longstreet Theatre box office, which is open Monday-Friday, 12:30pm-5:30pm. Longstreet Theatre is located at 1300 Greene St.  For more information about The 39 Steps or the theatre program at the University of SC, contact Kevin Bush via phone at 803-777-9353 or email at bushk@mailbox.sc.edu.