Was it Mrs. White in the kitchen with the candlestick? Or Col. Mustard in the library with the rope? Oh wait, I’m thinking back to last year, when the Paper Mill Playhouse presented a stage version of the board game, “Clue.” This year’s mystery, in a run that continues through May 14, is “Murder on the Orient Express.”
Yes, that would be the same 1934 Agatha Christie whodunit that previously was made into feature films in 1974 and 2017, as well as a made-for-TV film in 2001. This version, adapted by Ken Ludwig (“Lend Me a Tenor,” “Crazy for You,” “Moon Over Buffalo”), debuted at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton in 2017, with clever staging that created the illusion of a moving train while also letting audience members peek into that train’s cramped sleeping compartments.
It was a lot of fun then, and — with direction, this time around, by Casey Hushion (who also was at the helm for Paper Mill’s “Clue”) — it’s a lot of fun now. You probably already know by now, via the novel or the films, who committed the murder on the luxury train, which is stuck in the snow somewhere in Yugoslavia. But there is still plenty of entertainment value in watching Belgian master detective Hercule Poirot, stranded with a bunch of eccentric suspects (and not too eager to turn his time off from work into a busman’s holiday), inch closer and closer to the truth.
“The story you are about to witness is one of romance and tragedy, primal murder, and the urge for revenge,” Poirot, played in this production by Anthony Cochrane, tells the audience directly, in Ludwig’s prologue. “What better way to spend a pleasant evening together!”
“Murder on the Orient Express” is not as funny as “Clue,” but there is far more depth to it, partially because the characters are more realistic and the action less far-fetched, but also because Ludwig has Poirot — in the show’s epilogue, as well as its prologue — talk about an ethical issue that the case raised, for him. The experience of solving this murder “made me question the very deepest values that I have held since I was a young man,” he says.
At the same time, this Poirot is a little jollier and quicker-to-laugh than in some previous interpretations. But Cochrane still gives him the necessary gravity. Among the other actors, Karen Ziemba goes over the top in an always-entertaining way as the loud-and-annoying American, Helen Hubbard; Donna English (a veteran of many previous Paper Mill productions, including “Clue”) exudes regal authority as the haughty Princess Dragomiroff; and Gisela Chípe projects both warmth and glamor as Countess Andrenyi, whom Poirot is attracted to (even though she is as much of a suspect as everybody else).
Mark Jude Sullivan does double duty, playing both brusque businessman Samuel Ratchett and Col. Arbuthnot, who is having a secret affair with a governess, Mary Debenham (Leanne Antonio). At a cafe, before they board the train, Poirot overhears Debenham telling Arbuthnot she just want to “get it over with.” Later, Poirot wonders if the “it” is the murder; it’s one of many intriguing clues he has, to work with.
There are fewer suspects here than in the novel or the films. Still, Poirot faces a daunting challenge, trying to sort the clues out while cut off from the rest of the world (the play is set in 1934, so no Internet, no cellphones; they are really isolated in the snowbound train).
Beowulf Borritt, who did the scenic design for the McCarter production and receives the same credit here, creates a sense of Old World elegance, and the costumes (by Mariah Anzaldo Hale) and incidental music (sound design is by Matt Kraus) help in this regard, as well. Especially because most of the scenes are set in train compartments, it feels like the action is unfolding in a beautifully decorated jewel box.
A gruesome crime may lay at the heart of “Murder on the Orient Express.” But the play, paradoxically, also represents a chance to visit a kinder, gentler world than the one we are living in, nearly 100 years later. The world, that is, of Hercule Poirot, who can see through every lie, and who never stops conducting himself like a courtly gentleman, even though he is intimately acquainted with evil.
The Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn presents “Murder on the Orient Express” through May 14. Visit papermill.org.
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