By Margret Echeverria

Turns out Agatha Christie is the OG Murderino obsessed with the Lindbergh Baby murder, which possessed her in 1934 to pen the revenge fantasy classic, Murder on the Orient Express.   The story has been adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig and is now showing at the Hartford Stage, just a stone’s throw and a long jog from our Big Apple.

Emily Mann directs a cast of characters who are a bit like a herd of exotic cats, each one more mischievous and covert than the other.  The script calls for personalities that runneth over like Greta Ohlsson (Samantha Steinmetz), who looks like she fell out of an Edward Gorey drawing and rounds every vowel she speaks into an elongated “Ooooh.”  Steinmetz tickled me so much when passing others on the train lifting her skirt and shuffling sideways against the wall to reveal her Gorey-thin legs and clunky shoes turned sideways as she drew in air through her mouth shaped, of course, into a perfect “O.”  Countess Adrenyi (Leigh Ann Larken) is glamorous slinking across the stage in white satin, fur and velvet cut beautifully by costume designer William Ivey Long.  Larken drips with sensuality and the charm of  intelligence.  Detective Poirot (David Pittu) cannot get enough of the Countess and declares affection for her immediately upon meeting her.  Pittu is an actor with a very full tool box who is wonderful to watch as we can feel him listening so closely to everything and everyone around him; he keeps this story on track, so to speak, and makes the audience his intimate friend contrasting the other actors who revel in their individual character development, but do not quite achieve a palpable connection with one another.

This reviewer apologizes if anything is getting spoiled here, but it must be said that, even though these characters are – every one of them – impostors, they are on a collective mission in this story; the revenge they seek is motivated by a deep love which is alive and wounded within them.  And I fully understand that this is a comedy and Ludwig is lauded for his ability to lighten up a dark subject, but I would have liked to have seen two levels of awareness on the stage where characters are in their full color as well as demonstrating a shared human experience and urgent desire.  The laziness of this presentational style choice is my only negative criticism of the show as everything else was a splendid good time.

This murder mystery is loaded with good laughs, much of it through physical comedy, a tough skill to execute which is always such a delight when done so deftly by well-oiled actors such as these.  Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox) hunches over a cane and moves like a camel, but this does not prevent her from controlling everyone around her not with her title, but with her wit steeped in stark honesty even as she hides her deeds and relationships from Poirot.  Cox is a wonder communicating precisely what she means to say sometimes even without words, but with only a slight physical adjustment that creates laughter of the particularly satisfying kind.

Samantha Steinmetz is Greta Ohlsson. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Have I mentioned that I just adored the character of Greta Ohlsson?  At one point Steinmetz was on the floor in the agony of anxiety over being found out with her head nearly off the stage platform while audience members were in tears from vibrating bellies and kidney spasms as her perfectly round “O’s” continued to hang in the air.

Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston) is the statuesque blonde and the forgivable ugly American in this story (the other one needs killing).  She is a loud lush.  Halston takes comedic timing, pulls it back in a sling shot and flings it at us in hilarious flirtations coupled with a really grand confidence we all wish we had with every man on the train.  We’re too busy admiring that confidence to be embarrassed for her.  I want Helen Hubbard at my next party; she makes everything – even  murder – fun.

The set, by Beowulf Borit, is Art Deco elegance.  Hey, let’s put everyone on a train, limit the mobility of our actors in a space that is shallow front to back and really long left to right … Oh! And we have to indicate the movement of the train as well as accommodate dramatic moments by very adroit actors, who make huge gestures.  Go!  Borit gets it done and our disbelief is most willingly suspended amid plush first class cabins, ornate lattice work and gilded fixtures all moving in front of a rather creepy dark forest.

So, despite the only light indications of the relationships that brought all these mad characters together, playing this show for the comedy works pretty well.  We are entertained and surprised by the clever choices of the actors and the twists in the story.  Pittu brings such great depth to the end of the show when he describes his very human reaction to what the unusual circumstances of this particular crime force him to do with his conscience.  I loved the way he could be so outrageously funny and yet dig down for a moment so tender to share with us.  I will surely rush to see the next thing he does.  It’s a fun night out.  Go get a ticket and …. Stay Sexy Don’t Get Murdered.

Hartford Stage presents Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Emily Mann.

WITH:  Jordyn Elizabeth Schmidt (Daisy Armstrong), Ian Bedford (Colonel Arbuthnot/Ratchett), David Pittu (Hercule Poirot), Maboud Ebrahimzadeh (Michel/Head Waiter), Susannah Hoffman (Mary Debenham), Julie Halston (Helen Hubbard), Evan Zes (Monsieur Bouc), Chalres Paul Mihaliak (Army Officer/Porter), Veanne Cox (Princess Dragomiroff), Samantha Steinmetz (Greta Ohlsson), Juha Sorola (Hector MacQueen), Leigh Ann Larkin (Countess Adrenyi).

Assistant Director, Skye Robinson Hillis; Dialect Coach, Thom Jones; Production Stage Manager, Samantha Flint; Scenic design by Beowulf Boritt; Costume design by William Ivey Long; Lighting design by Ken Billington; Sound design by Darron L. West.

Through March 25 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m., Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.. and Sunday at 2 p.m., with added 2 p.m. matinees on Feb. 28 and March 10 and 17. Tickets are $25 to $90. 860-527-5151,