Monday, February 26, 2018

Murder on the Orient Express on Stage: Riding High

David Pittu, Leigh Ann Larkin, and Evan Zes in Hartford Stage's Murder on the Orient Express. (Photo: T. Charles Erickson)

What two sets of filmmakers (screenwriter Paul Dehn and director Sidney Lumet in 1974, screenwriter Michael Green and director Kenneth Branagh in 2017) couldn’t manage to do – turn Agatha Christie’s 1934 mystery Murder on the Orient Express into entertaining dramatic stuff – playwright Ken Ludwig and director Emily Mann have managed with seeming effortlessness. The production from the McCarter Theatre Center (where Mann is artistic director), currently playing at Hartford Stage, is charming, funny and stylish. The veteran Ludwig, whose long list of credits includes Lend Me a Tenor and the book for Crazy for You, the Gershwin musical that began life as Girl Crazy, has taken a light, parodic approach to the famous Christie material, her tenth Hercule Poirot adventure – which begins when the eccentric Belgian detective, with the aid of his train-line director friend M. Bouc, cadges a last-minute seat on board the unexpectedly crowded Orient Express from Aleppo to Istanbul. The first night of the trip, an American gangster calling himself Samuel Ratchett is stabbed to death in his compartment. The next day, while Poirot is interrogating the other first-class passengers and the conductor, the train is immobilized by a snowstorm – and in both the Lumet and the Branagh versions, the movie follows suit.

Not so in the production, which makes sense: drama by its nature is more sedentary, and only a bad play has the effect of making us feel trapped along with the characters. (Though it’s worth pointing out that it doesn’t have to be in the case in a movie either – when the train reaches an impasse in Hitchcock’s The Lady Vanishes, we hardly feel stranded.) In fact, working on a nifty, handsome set by Beowulf Boritt consisting of several train cars, with a traveler curtain to shift focus and define the space along with the indispensable help of Ken Bellington’s lighting, Mann keeps the action on a continual trajectory, employing the tension between the cars and the corridor and between the cars themselves, as well as subtle gradation of levels in the staging, to vary the stage picture. It’s a deft piece of direction. When Poirot announces his solution to the mystery of Ratchett’s murder and the shooting of one of the other passengers, Mary Debenham (who survives the assault relatively unscathed), Mann comes up with a non-realist staging device to stand in for the revelatory flashback. It’s modest but clever, and its theatricality is part of its appeal. The other member of the creative team who deserves praise is the hard-working costume designer, William Ivey Long, who swathes everyone in the cast in swanky Depression-era outfits.

Christie, typically, devised a cast of colorful characters, and there isn’t a single actor in the ensemble whose company I didn’t enjoy thoroughly. The delightful David Pittu is Poirot; he and Evan Zes, as the enthusiastic Bouc, share fairly evenly the lion’s share of the evening’s laughs. Next on that list would be Veanne Cox, her Russian-accented voice like a foghorn, as Princess Dragmorioff, and Julie Halston as the flirtatious aging American, Helen Hubbard. Halston plays the role in the style of one of those wryly quipping dames from 1930s movies, like Helen Broderick or Alice Brady. The other suspects are played by Susannah Hoffman (Mary Debenham), Maboud Ebrahamizadeh (Michel, the conductor), Samantha Steinmetz (Greta Ohlsson, the Swedish missionary in service to the princess), Juha Sorola (Ratchett’s secretary, Hector MacQueen) and Leigh Ann Larkin (Countess Andrenyi, who wears the most sumptuous costume). Ian Bedford doubles as the Scots Colonel Arbuthnot and Ratchett the murder victim without distracting the audience. With Ludwig and Mann, the cast collectively hits just the right note: the comedy never feels overplayed and it never violates the period style. It couldn’t have been easy pulling off the show with such finesse. It just looks that way.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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