Regional Reviews: New Jersey
Murder on the Orient Express
Ken Ludwig's 2018 dramatization of Agatha Christie's 1935 mystery novel Murder on the Orient Express is a crisp and concise light entertainment. It is an intriguing, well produced, deftly performed, extremely clever, fun mystery which I think will entertain all but the youngest family members who may simply find it too difficult to follow.
As Ken Ludwig is deservedly most renowned for his outstanding comedies (e.g, Lend Me a Tenor and Moon Over Buffalo), the popularity of the satiric mystery genre, and Ludwig himself describing this adaptation as a comic mystery, I had anticipated that the production would be in that category. Despite a few occasional moments of humor, at first I felt that Express did not have enough humor to work as a comedy. It felt like it was falling between two chairs. When I concluded that what I was watching was essentially straight mystery play (with a nice dollop of humor), my appreciation took a pretty sharp upturn. Hopefully, this observation will add to your enjoyment.
The second thing you should know going in, I can tell you in two words: Karen Ziemba. She plays Helen Hubbard, the play's funniest and showiest role and one that feels as if it had been written for her. It warms the heart to see her performing at so high a peak. Watching her made me think of how great Ziemba would be singing the lyric, "You either have it or you've had it".
1934. Hercule Poirot, the legendary, retired Belgian detective now working as a for-hire private detective boards the Orient Express in Istanbul to return to England at the request of Scotland Yard. A passenger is murdered on the train. The train is stranded in a storm in the wilds of Yugoslavia. Rather than wait for the police to get to the train, the on-board railroad director requests that Poirot investigate the case. Cleverly written clues, interesting characters, and interpretations (by Poirot) abound. Well-constructed, the first act essentially lays out the clues, and in the second act, they are employed to solve the murder. Pay close attention, you could figure out...
Ludwig has done an excellent job paring down the number of suspects, enabling space for the characters to be sufficiently developed to keep our interest without drowning us in too much material to retain their stories properly at least for the course of the play.
Director Casey Hushion has elicited strong performances from her cast. From what I have seen in Poirot interpretations, there is a tendency for him to be portrayed in an artificially arch and actorly manner. Anthony Cochrane plays the detective in a natural, unaffected, low-key manner which makes his Poirot strongly likeable and relatable. Although all of the actors deliver solid performances, Hushion manages to blend the balance of the ensemble so precisely that its members meld seamlessly (please check cast listing).
Beowulf Boritt is a very talented and inventive scenic designer, but he fails to solve all of the problems in his complex design. Narrow scenic sections at various points on the stage obstruct audience views. However, Boritt's scenery is a visually fascinating and largely effective plus.
Although there is nothing particularly new in this Christie adaptation, it is well done and provides an enjoyable evening of theatre.
Murder on the Orient Express runs through May 14, 2023, at Paper Mill Playhouse, Brookside Drive, Millburn NJ. Performances are Evenings: Wednesday, Thursday 7:30 p.m./ Friday, Saturday 8:00 p.m. and Sunday 7:00 p.m. Matinees: Thursday, Saturday and Sunday 1:30 p.m. For tickets and information, please call the box office at 973-376-4343 or visit www.papermill.org.
Cast (in alphabetical order): Leanne Antonio (Mary Debenham), Gisela Chipe (Countess Andrenyi), Anthony Cochrane (Hercule Poirot), Donna English (Princess Dragomiroff), Stephanie Gibson (Greta Ohlsson), Alex Mandell (Hector Mcqueen), Graham Stevens (Michel/Headwaiter), Mark Jude Sullivan (Colonel Arbuthnot/Samuel Ratchett), Evan Zes (Monsieur Bouc) Karen Ziemba (Helen Hubbard)