Princeton’s Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center is at the heart of a mystery. Ken Ludwig’s world premiere adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is now in performances and, in the hand of director Emily Mann, we’ve got a masterpiece of intrigue, broadly enjoyable characters and a cavalcade of clues.
Hercule Poirot (Allan Corduner) gives a masterful performance as Agatha Christie’s greatest detective. Her beautifully descriptive passages describing exotic locales where she traveled provided the verisimilitude other travelers of her ilk enjoyed. These descriptions also gave book-vacations to those who could not afford such rarified luxury. Combining actual occurrences in the storied life of the Orient Express with one of her favorite settings–a train with a truly captive population– Christie propelled herself on her travels, leading to her career as the best-selling novelist of all time. Her descriptions are exceeded only by her characters–and characters they are! Believe it or not, while I knew the premise of the story, I had never read the book nor seen the films, of which a new one will be added to the canon this year. My stalwart companion remained staunchly tight-lipped so I could enjoy the reveal.
Doubling as Head Waiter at the Tokatlian Hotel and Michel the Conductor, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh is first obsequiously unctuous then darkly brooding, competent, and handsome. He is completely in control of his surroundings and smoothly efficient. Also doubling, as Samuel Ratchett and Colonel Arbuthnot, is the versatile Max Von Essen. The Colonel is a Scottish Lothario, whose not-as-private-as-they’d-like affair de coeur with Mary Debenham (Susannah Hoffman), lends an air of mystery to them both that could spell trouble. American Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston) shows us how brash people from a 150-year-old country can be, belting out show tunes and inserting herself in hyper social ways. What is she hiding and why has she had so many husbands? Hector McQueen (Juha Sorola) is the perfect balance of an Englishman–he’s polite and capable, yet oddly reticent in expressing himself. Yet when the murder occurs, he’s clearly an astute observer of the scene. Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox) and her erstwhile companion Greta Ohlssen (Samantha Steinmetz) have a relationship that’s difficult to watch, yet so sharply drawn that, while boon companions out of necessity, they are unlikely to remain so. Countess Andrenyi (Alexandra Silber) is a maelstrom of energy, beauty, and accomplishment. Turns out she’s medically trained as well as being gorgeous and charming. Poirot is, like nearly all of the men, taken with her. Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes) rounds out the ship of fools–um, train of fools, as the representative of the rail line and Poirot’s old friend. Daisy Armstrong (Ivy Cordle) has a small role in the ensemble, but all are beautifully creative in taking us back in time when travel by luxury train was the ne plus ultra, and the beautiful people were international.
My favorite characters were the Countess, who seemed to sweep men along to do her will with tendrils of perfume and promise, and the crispety-crunchy dowager Princess Dragomiroff, whose distinctive manner of speaking and wry style often had me laughing out loud. And, of course, Poirot! Corduner’s conjuring of Christie’s most famous detective is delicious and the entire ensemble makes a gamboling evening of fun for all. William Ivey Long’s costumes and Paul Huntley’s wigs set the perfect tone and Beowulf Boritt’s set is Art Deco brilliance. Emily Mann’s expert direction teases out the nuance of Ken Ludwig’s fabulous stage adaptation of this classic.
“Murder on the Orient Express” plays through April 2, so make sure you catch this train before the first class cabins are gone. Contact the box office at www.McCarter.org
or via telephone at 609/258-ARTS (2787).