If you have ever wondered why we use the word play when describing a theatrical production, you need only watch “The 39 Steps,” running through Oct. 2 at Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte, to get your answer. From start to finish, “The 39 Steps” is a frenzied celebration of make-believe, with outlandish characters, clever staging, and a healthy dose of comedy. There’s murder, mystery, and international intrigue and that’s just the first 15 minutes of the show! During the course of two hours, four actors play more than 150 different roles. If you subtract one who anchors the story as the quintessential leading man, and another who handily personifies three very different women, that still leaves about 146 characters to split between two actors. It sounds like a daunting task but Rory Dunn (Clown #1) and Greg McGrath (Clown #2) do it with non-stop energy and incredible precision. The two men manage to create distinct characters, ranging in age, gender, occupation, and nationality, by simply transforming themselves physically and vocally. They have props and costumes that help to distinguish the various characters from one another but these are kept to a minimum. The real magic comes from all four actors’ ability to draw us into their game of make-believe. In fact, “The 39 Steps” often feels more like we are watching a bunch of kids play dress up in the basement, letting their imaginations run wild, than a formal theatrical presentation. That’s not a criticism. That’s a big part of why this show is so much fun to watch. Just as quickly as one character shifts to another, the settings for this show switch constantly, and are almost cinematic in scope. Remarkably, this is done without glitz and expensive sets. For most of the show, the stage is so bare that we even see the brick wall at the back of the theater. But through brilliant direction and minimal props, the actors activate our imaginations. Suddenly, a few shipping crates are transformed into a chugging locomotive train, and four chairs become a rickety car — bouncing along the Scottish countryside. Doors and windows are moved back and forth by the actors themselves to accommodate tiny hotel rooms and expansive mansions alike. That the variety of settings and the number of characters in “The 39 Steps” seem to be right out of a movie is no accident. The play, “The 39 Steps,” is based upon Alfred Hitchcock’s famous film of the same title. Hitchcock and his films are spoofed throughout the production with good-natured silliness and lots of sight gags. For example, the phone rings after the receiver’s already been picked up; a dying woman with a knife plunged into her back takes a gulp of whiskey (and screws the top of the bottle back on) before her last breath; and references to Hitchcock’s films as well as his famous silhouette pop up sporadically throughout the evening. Hitchcock is such an icon of American culture that you’re bound to catch most of the jokes even if you think you’re not that familiar with his work. Regrettably, unlike a film, the play comes with an intermission. This is the one significant flaw of the production. After a few minutes of the play, we are under its spell. The intermission snaps us back into reality and it’s a bit difficult to return to the world of make-believe after a 15 – 20 minute break. To their credit, they attempt to keep us in the moment by sending in a 1930s-style movie usher selling candy and snacks. But it’s a shame to disrupt “The 39 Steps,” an incredible ensemble piece where physical comedy and timing are so crucial. The show is sweet enough already, without breaking for candy. More Info: “The 39 Steps” plays at the Actor’s Theatre of Charlotte (650 East Stonewall Street, Charlotte) through Oct. 2. For tickets, call 704.342.2251 ext. 21 or go to actorstheatrecharlotte.org. Prices range from $24 – $31. Discounts available for students, seniors, and groups. Talk-backs every Thursday night following the performance.