March 22, 2017

Agatha Christie’s Detective Poirot Investigates a “Murder on the Orient Express”; The Witty Adaptation Receives Its World Premiere at McCarter Theatre

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS: Performances are underway for McCarter Theatre Center’s world premiere production of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express.” Adapted by Ken Ludwig and directed by Emily Mann, the play runs through April 2 on McCarter’s Matthews Stage. Hercule Poirot (Allan Corduner) is shown in the top photo and the play’s company appears in the bottom photo. (Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson) 

Ken Ludwig’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express received its world premiere at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre March 17. As expected, the story keeps the audience guessing about the solution to the murder until near the end. Early on, however, it is no mystery that playgoers will find much to entertain them in this first-class production.

In her program notes, director Emily Mann promises that Ludwig, whose previous plays include the comedies Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo, “weaves his signature comic sensibility into this highly theatrical adaptation.” A female passenger tells the detective, “You remind me of one of my husbands: the next one,” in a line that recalls Dorothy Parker as much as Agatha Christie.

Indeed, Ludwig also wrote the libretto for the Gershwin-inspired musical Crazy for You. This Murder on the Orient Express is not a musical, but it is infused with a musical theater sensibility. At one point a character sings “Lullaby of Broadway,” a showstopper from the musical 42nd Street. Also, many of the actors’ movements are choreographed in a highly stylized manner.

Two events helped inspire Christie’s 1934 novel. The first was one of the author’s own journeys on the Orient Express, during which the train was stopped because of flooding. The second was the kidnapping and murder of pilot Charles Lindbergh’s son, in Hopewell, New Jersey.

Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective who appears in over 30 of Christie’s novels, bookends the play by breaking the fourth wall. He begins and concludes the show by speaking to the audience to reminisce about the events of his journey, and to reveal the fates of his fellow passengers.

In a hotel dining room in Istanbul, Poirot is waiting to learn whether he has obtained passage on the Orient Express. While reading the newspaper, he overhears an agitated conversation between a young British woman, who is afraid of missing the train, and her Scottish companion. Monsieur Bouc, a friend of Poirot who heads the company that owns the Orient Express, who is surprised to learn that tickets are sold out. He uses his position to arrange passage for Poirot.

The detective’s fellow passengers include Princess Dragomiroff, an elderly Russian exile; Greta Ohlsson, the princess’s Swedish travel companion; Mary Debenham, a British governess; her Scottish friend, Colonel Arbuthnot; Samuel Ratchett, an American businessman who is quite arrogant; Hector MacQueen, Ratchett’s nervous secretary; Countess Eléna Andrenyi, a Hungarian aristocrat; and the ostentatious Helen Hubbard. The train’s conductor is named Michel.

Ratchett has received threatening letters, and offers Poirot five thousand dollars to discover who wrote them. Poirot, who finds Ratchett’s personality off-putting, refuses. Later, after the train has been immobilized by a snow drift, Ratchett is found murdered.

Bouc begs Poirot to investigate. Poirot initially declines (“I have to be in London in three days”), but Bouc persists (“solve it in two!” is his response). Poirot asks Countess Andrenyi, who is a trained doctor, to help him examine Ratchett’s body. They observe that the stab wounds seem to have been delivered with varying degrees of strength, by perpetrators who were right and left-handed.

In Ratchett’s compartment, Poirot discovers the fragment of a letter containing the words “remember little Daisy Armstrong.” Poirot concludes that Ratchett’s true identity is Bruno Cassetti, who kidnapped a little girl, held her for ransom, and killed her. Daisy’s murder resulted in the deaths of other members of her family.

Eventually, Poirot assembles the other passengers and offers two possible solutions to the mystery. He also faces a moral dilemma: should he tell the police the truth about the case? Or should he protect the perpetrators who, not unlike the title character of the Showtime series Dexter, committed murder to rid the world of an even more vicious killer?

Allan Corduner’s Poirot is less aloof and irascible than David Suchet’s portrayal in the long-running television series. However, Corduner brings the reserve and authority required by the iconic role. His debonair earnestness and slight unease recall his performances in Topsy-Turvy and Da Vinci’s Demons.

Julie Halston stops the show as Helen Hubbard, who is similar to the flamboyant character Halston portrayed in the Broadway revival of You Can’t Take It with You. Veanne Cox as Princess Dragomiroff, Max Von Essen as Ratchett, Susannah Hoffman as Mary Debenham, and Evan Zes as Monsieur Bouc round out the talented ensemble. Ivy Cordle infuses Daisy Armstrong with a palpable terror; her scene is a genuinely heartrending moment in a show that is mostly comic.

The direction by Emily Mann is theatrical but never stodgy. She moves the performers, sets, and curtain to give the production a cinematic flow.

Beowulf Boritt’s sets and William Ivey Long’s costumes appear to have been created by one designer; the color palette is well coordinated and consistent. Visually, the production is opulent but deliberate. As an example of the subtle choices by the creative team, Countess Andrenyi — a trained doctor — wears white.

The lighting by Ken Billington is effective in its presence and — at crucial points in the story — its absence. Darron L. West’s sound design heightens the tense mood of the characters, and an effective use of music places the audience in the 1930s. As with the lighting, the cessation of music is effective; when a romantic couple is interrupted, the music abruptly stops, resuming only when the interloper leaves.

A sense of foreboding surrounds Murder on the Orient Express, which drew inspiration from a horrendous crime against a family. However, the tension is artfully undercut by humorous dialogue and the gloss of a musical comedy.

“Murder on the Orient Express” will play at McCarter’s Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place in Princeton, through April 2. For information call (609) 258-2787 or visit