Two Seattle theaters will open their 2008-09 seasons with British mysteries from two subgenres. Seattle Rep presents the local debut of "The 39 Steps," based on a classic Alfred Hitchcock spy film. And Seattle Public Theatre's "Tryst" plumbs a drama of seduction and betrayal by Karoline Leach.

When it comes to mystery yarns, the British are in a league of their own.

Since the late 19th century, they’ve led the way in devising cunning and tense thrillers for page, stage and screen for our amusement.

Two Seattle theaters will open their 2009-10 seasons with British mysteries from two subgenres. Seattle Rep presents the local debut of “The 39 Steps,” based on a classic Alfred Hitchcock spy film. And Seattle Public Theater’s “Tryst” plumbs a drama of seduction and betrayal by Karoline Leach.

Patrick Barlow’s globally popular adaptation of “The 39 Steps” (currently running on Broadway and in London’s West End) is a type of thriller Hitchcock loved and perfected: the stylish, scary-comic saga of the wrongly accused.

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The play remains faithful to the captivating, same-titled 1935 film that starred dashing Robert Donat and alluring Madeleine Carroll, with its sexy banter and plot of an innocent man trying to clear himself of murder and expose a spy ring.

But onstage, the film’s 180 roles are shared among just four actors.

Veteran Irish director Maria Aitken (who staged the show in London, and later on Broadway and in Australia), says the cast “works very, very hard,” and even helps set the scenery.

“I think people are fed up with trillion-dollar sets and really enjoy the spectacle of human endeavor,” says Aitken, who is here checking out the Seattle Rep-La Jolla Playhouse coproduction of “The 39 Steps” (based on her own direction).

The actors also whip up sight gags based on images from the film: a man hanging from the roof of a train, a dash through the Scottish moors.

“It’s all done with the simplest things,” says Aitken. “A trunk, a picture frame. And smoke! We’re very dependent on smoke.”

As for the mystery being unraveled, it’s a typical Hitchcock “McGuffin” — a plot device that sets the tale in motion, but may never be logically resolved.

“You never know where the 39 steps they talk about are,” Aitken notes wryly. “But does it matter? We all love the feeling of participating in a chase, and ours is funny and suspenseful.”

It takes even fewer actors (two) to dole out the chills and shocks in Seattle Public’s “Tryst,” a tale in the genre of such darkly psychological thrillers as “Gaslight” and “The Turn of the Screw.”

“Tryst” follows a wily con man in Edwardian England (played by Brian Claudio Smith) who preys on plain, single women with cash. But his conquest of a new victim, the lonely Adelaide (Emily Chisholm), does not go as planned.

“There are twists and turns I won’t give away,” says director Tim Hyland. “What’s great is you never know where the plot is going from moment to moment.”

“Tryst” (titled “The Mysterious Mr. Love” in an earlier version that debuted a decade ago) is, says Hyland, intrinsically British.

“I grew up in Canada, around English people, and find it interesting that the more emotional they become, the less they show it.”

His formula for teasing out the suspense? “I’m really going after those loaded silences … “

Misha Berson: mberson@seattletimes.com