There are a lot of superlatives surrounding the current production of “Murder on the Orient Express” at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton.
The detective who solves the case, Hercule Poirot (played by Allen Corduner), tells the audience at the start of the play that “It has been called the greatest case of my career,” before adding, with unconvincing self-deprecation, “But who am I so say. I’m too modest.”
The Orient Express itself, a train, is called by another character “poetry on wheels, and Lord Byron himself could not write it better.”
Agatha Christie, who first published “Murder on the Orient Express” as a novel in 1934, is the best-selling novelist of all time, and “Murder on the Orient Express” is probably her best known work. While the McCarter production (adapted by Ken Ludwig, with direction by Emily Mann) is a world premiere, Christie’s “The Mousetrap” is the longest-running play in the history of the world, having opened in London in 1952 without, even now, a closing date in sight.
So to say there are high expectations about this productions is an understatement. And the production faces another challenge, too: Many of those attending will have read the book, or seen the 1974 movie or the 2001 made-for-TV film (another film, starring Kenneth Branagh and Johnny Depp, is on its way). And so they know, in advance, whodunit.
In other words, this is one daunting play to take on.
And the McCarter, to the credit of everyone involved, nails it. Yes, we know that big twist is coming, but it doesn’t matter, since the play succeeds on virtually every level.
Corduner is a very good Poirot: Precise and prickly, a bit full of himself (he is considered the world’s greatest detective, after all) but also very human. This Poirot is not above feeling helpless or frustrated at times.
The suspects, including ditzy American actress Helen Hubbard (Julie Halston) and dragon-like Princess Dragomiroff (Veanne Cox, channelling Maggie Smith), are a bit one-dimensional, but you don’t really expect more in a play like this. One of the things that lifts this play above the terrain of an ordinary mystery, though, is that Poirot doesn’t just have to deal with a perplexing mystery, but is also faced with a moral dilemma, once he solves it. He makes his choice, but is unsure, even after deciding, if he did the right thing.
Set designer Beowulf Boritt has managed to create not just a sense of old-fashioned elegance, but old-fashioned railway elegance. Costume designer William Ivey shows an impressive sense of imagination: Just look at the white fur-and-feature ensemble worn by Alexandra Silber as Countess Andrenyi, above. Mann and her crew figure out ways to create movement — or at least, at times, the illusion of movement — on such a relatively small stage (for such an imposing train).
There were 13 suspects in the original novel — basically all the passengers traveling on a train on which a murder has occurred. (The train gets stuck in a snow drift, and it’s impossible that someone boarded, murdered and left without leaving tracks. And there are no tracks). Ludwig cuts the number of suspects down to eight, with his cast of 10 (including two actors playing two roles apiece).
The downsizing doesn’t affect the story at all. It’s still all about Poirot, maneuvering in a cramped space, surrounded by suspects and faced with a dizzying assortment of clues, and ingeniously, near-miraculously (given the circumstances) ferreting out the truth.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through April 2. Visit mccarter.org.