By Victoria Weisfeld
This is a play for people who like fun! Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, Murder on the Orient Express, has been adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig. This world premiere opened March 17 and is on stage at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through April 2, directed by McCarter’s artistic director, Emily Mann. Already the buzz about the show is at a high pitch, and it is reportedly on track to sell the most tickets in McCarter history. The popularity of the theater’s earlier foray into Christie-land, last year’s The Mousetrap, required an extended run.
Tony award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt has created a stunning representation of the ill-fated train, the luxe Orient Express, for the cast to play on. Starting from the opening scene in an elegant Istanbul restaurant, the production design transports you to the menacing—and in Ludwig’s adaptation, humor-laced—world of the story. Beautifully surmounting the technical difficulties of staging a play whose action mostly occurs on a train, the cars move, the snow falls, the whistle blows, and you are off on a theatrical adventure.
In true Christie (and cozy mystery) style, the violence is minimal, clues are everywhere, red herrings and all, and the ensemble cast is peopled with quirky characters, confined in a setting where every interaction is significant. All gather for the final dramatic reveal, led by Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Allan Corduner), in the train’s dining car.
The cast includes an exiled Russian princess (Veanne Cox), a Parisian conductor (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a showtune-singing, multiply-married, Minneapolis mahjongg-player (Julie Halston), a dewey nanny (Susannah Hoffman), a glamorous Hungarian countess (Alexandra Silber), an English manservant/secretary (Juha Sorola), an African missionary (Samantha Steinmetz), a military veteran and the murder victim (Max von Essen), and the manager of the Wagon-Lits company, Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes). In order to preserve his company’s reputation, Monsieur Bouc is determined to enlist Poirot in solving the murder of an American gangster stabbed in his sleeping car. Poirot finds himself presented with too many clues, and it’s delightful to see Carduner and the cast sort through the information and disinformation presented. Each of the actors brings verve and sharp definition to their performances, especially noting Corduner, Halston, and Silber.
In attendance on opening night was Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Dame Agatha and in charge of her estate. In pre-opening conversations, Pritchard said his grandmother had a great appreciation and love of live theater. How effectively her work transitions to this medium testifies to that sensibility. He commissioned Ludwig to choose one of her stories for a stage adaptation, and Orient was Ludwig’s his first choice. Not only is it a story not previously presented on stage, the unusual setting, the striking characters, and dramatic story create the “sense of occasion” Ludwig strives for.
In addition to Boritt’s glamorous set, the production enjoys wonderful costumes by six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long. Additional production credits to Ken Billington (lighting design); Darron L. West (sound design); Thom Jones (dialect coach); Paul Huntley (wig design); and Cheryl Mintz (production stage manager).
For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.