Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: New Jersey / Delaware Valley

Murder on the Orient Express
McCarter Theatre Center
Review by Cameron Kelsall

The Cast
Photo by T. Charles Erickson
Ken Ludwig's serviceable but toothless stage adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express at Princeton's McCarter Theatre Company owes more to Sidney Lumet than Agatha Christie.

This is not merely due to the fact that Ludwig's reworking is relentlessly cinematic. The reason this production owes a greater debt to Lumet's 1974 film adaptation than Christie's 1934 source text has to do with style and subtext—chiefly, the overabundance of the former at the expense of the latter. Christie wrote her famous murder mystery on the eve of World War II, when the existential threats of Nazism and fascism were creeping into the fabric of European society. This sense of dread permeates her novel. There is humor in Christie's writing, of course, but the comedy often accentuates the darker elements that exist around its edges.

Separated by forty years, Lumet's movie is more of a madcap romp than a gimlet-eyed examination of a society on the brink of authoritarianism and war. It goes for the laughs and gets them. And perhaps this is what the Christie estate expected when they approved an adaptation penned by Ludwig, best known for his enduring farce Lend Me a Tenor. Director Emily Mann and a trifecta of Tony Award-winning artists—set designer Beowulf Borritt, costume designer William Ivey Long, and lighting designer Ken Billington—have supplied a fleetly paced and truly opulent production that matches the grandeur of its filmic source. Ludwig's script foregrounds the comedic elements of the plot, but achieves neither the film's brilliant comedy nor the novel's sharply colored social commentary.

Instead, the audience simply gets a garden variety murder mystery: on a train from Istanbul to Paris, Samuel Ratchett (Max Von Essen) is murdered in the dead of night. It is clear to the legendary detective Hercule Poirot (Allan Corduner)—who happens to be traveling on the same train—that the murderer is among the eight first class passengers, but the mystery only deepens when it is revealed that the late Mr. Ratchett was not who he appeared to be. It quickly becomes clear to Poirot that everyone on board possesses a plausible motive for committing the crime. The fun derives from figuring out not just who, but why.

Poirot opens and closes the play with two soliloquies that offer an overview of the situation. These are undoubtedly the play's finest moments, rife with poetry and introspection, and Corduner puts them across beautifully. Unfortunately, Poirot seems to be far more of a bumbling detective than he should the rest of the time. Corduner bravely tries to overcome the script's deficits, with varying degrees of success. I cannot fully fault him, though—he's been given the unenviable task of playing Poirot as if he were the Pink Panther. I'm not sure anyone could make that work.

The uniformly fine supporting cast offers occasional relief from the perfunctory proceedings. The highest praise goes to veterans Julie Halston and Veanne Cox as the brash Helen Hubbard and the cold-blooded Princess Dragomiroff, respectively. The talented Alexandra Silber manages to imbue the enigmatic Countess Andrenyi with quiet dignity and heartfelt sincerity. The terrific Evan Zes gives a grand performance as Monsieur Bouc, the train's manager and Poirot's devoted friend.

But solid acting and a stunning physical production are not enough to elevate the evening, and that's a shame. In many ways, it is the perfect time for Murder on the Orient Express to return. It was originally written at a precarious time in the history of the world, a period whose echoes can be heard in our current geopolitical landscape. An insightful adaptation that blends both the humor and the humanity inherent in the story could be just the kind of entertainment we need at this moment. Unfortunately, this adaptation glosses over most of what makes Murder on the Orient Express more than just another cozy mystery.

Rumors have swirled that this production has its sights set on Broadway. Ludwig and Mann would do well to revisit Christie's crackling novel before contemplating such a move.

Murder on the Orient Express continues through Sunday, April 2, 2017, at McCarter Theatre Company's Matthews Theatre, 91 University Place, Princeton, NJ. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling 609-258-2787.

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