Vintage Christie stays on track

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HARTFORD, Conn. — Hercule Poirot, the idiosyncratic Belgian detective at the center of Ken Ludwig's stage adaptation of Agatha Christie's "Murder on the Orient Express" (impeccably played by David Pittu in the visually sumptuous, if dramatically uneven, production at Hartford Stage), is a haunted figure.

As it turns out, he is not the only one. "Murder on the Orient Express" is a murder-mystery to be sure, but it also is a ghost story shaped by the kidnapping and murder of a 5-year-old girl years before the events on the train, and the events on the train themselves, sparked by a murder that, years after its resolution, still poses questions profound enough to keep Poirot up at night.

"It was certainly the most difficult (case) I have ever encountered," Poirot says in his opening remarks to the audience, "and it made me question the very deepest values that I have held since I was a young man."

Set in winter 1934 in the first-class coach of the fabled train as it makes its way from Istanbul to Paris, "Murder on the Orient Express" is vintage Christie — eight strangers (Ludwig has trimmed Christie's roster) the passenger list from Christie's 12) in a confined space — in this case, a train — with no opportunity to escape, each with a secret. Poirot, who is making is way to London, prevails upon his friend, Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes), the owner of the railway line, to find a place for him in the fully booked carriage. Also on board is a conductor, Michel (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), who is as discreet as he is efficient.

The passenger list includes two brash Americans — a loud, self-serving, bullying businessman named Ratchett (Ian Bedford), who has been receiving death threats, and a Minnesotan, Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston in a grand performance that very nearly goes overboard)), who is on her fourth husband; Ratchett's beleaguered secretary, Hector MacQueen (Juha Sorola); a crusty, aging Russian princess (a sublimely dark and barking Veanne Cox); her hapless Scandinavian aide, Greta Ohlsson (Samantha Steinmetz); a Scottish army officer (Bedford, again) and his companion, a lively English lass named Mary (an amiable Susannah Hoffman); and a married countess (a compelling and engaging Leigh Ann Larkin), with whom Poirot, in one of the production's most appealing moments, has a playful flirtation.

The train becomes snowbound, and as the train sits, stalled, awaiting rescue, Poirot takes charge when one of the passengers is found brutally stabbed to death.

"Murder on the Orient Express" was commissioned by the Christie estate. The cleverly conceived, designed and executed production comes to Hartford Stage from McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, N.J., where it had its world premiere last March.

McCarter's artistic director, Emily Mann, has directed this visual feast with a heavy hand. Supported by an incidental score that features bold sweeps of Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninoff, Mahler, Haydn, Bach and Barber (with a nod to Cole Porter, and the songwriting team of Harry Warren and Al Dubin), Mann's approach flirts with a variety of styles and genres ranging from tongue-in-cheek melodrama to drama to sly romantic comedy. It's an approach that fits neatly with Ludwig's own appreciation for and admiration and understanding of the styles. especially comedic, that enrich the stage and filmmaking at its grandest. And yet, the whole feels effortful and self-conscious. It's not until the second half that Mann's production finds a sustainable rhythm that is carried through the conclusion.

Its most inspired moments — that saucy flirtation between Poirot and the countess at the crime scene, followed later in the second act by a haunting, deeply moving, extended darker scene between the two; a sublimely grand clinch between Bedford's Arbuthnot and Hoffman's Mary, initiated by her; Halston's karaoke-style rendition of "Lullabye of Broadway" — are quick and fleeting.

To a degree, the stylistic potpourri says something about the deceptions that occupy the first-class coach's parlors, compartments and passageway until Poirot methodically reveals an unexpected truth. The light that shines from that revelation is as piercing as the engine light that points with unrelenting ferocity directly at the audience as the play begins, and as foreboding and unsettling as the darkness that surrounds it.

Theater review

What: "Murder on the Orient Express." Adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig. Based upon the novel by Agatha Christie. Directed by Emily Mann

With: David Pittu, Jordyn Elizabeth Schmidt, Ian Bedford, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, Susannah Hoffman, Julie Halston, Evan Zes, Charles Paul Milhaliak, Veanne Cox, Samantha Steinmetz, Juha Sorola, Leigh Ann Larkin

Where: Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford, Conn.

When: Through March 25. Evenings — Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 (no performances March 20, 21, 22); Friday and Saturday at 8. Matinees — Saturday and Sunday at 2

Running time: 1 hour,

55 minutes

Tickets: $90-$25

Reservations/Information: 860-527-5151;

hartfordstage.org

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