By Adam F. Cohen. . .
Just after midnight, a snowstorm stops the Orient Express in its tracks. The luxurious train is surprisingly full for the time of the year. By morning a crass American tycoon lies dead in his compartment, stabbed eight times, his door locked from the inside. Isolated and with a killer in their midst, the passengers rely on detective Hercule Poirot to identify the murderer – in case he or she decides to strike again.
Mystery lovers and those seeking entertainment should board Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express now departing from the Paper Mill Playhouse. There are few things in literary life more indelible and enjoyable than a well-crafted Agatha Christie mystery. Her instincts for ingenious plot twists, memorable characters and far-flung locales were impeccable and have stood the test of time. Ken Ludwig’s adaptation in the stellar directorial hands of Casey Hushion, crackerjack set design by Beowulf Boritt and Charlie Morrison’s perfect lighting make for an incredible evening.
“Murder on the Orient Express,” named for the famed luxury train that once traveled from Paris to Istanbul, holds much promise. Factor an intriguing titular locale and an array of memorably idiosyncratic characters, the 1930s-set mystery has a classic Christie ending — one that makes perfect, obvious sense and that you don’t see coming until the play spells it out.
The plot unfolds primarily on the titular train. World-famous detective Hercule Poirot (Anthony Cochrane) is on vacation; the hilariously focused train owner Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes endearing even when ruthlessly single-minded about protecting his vehicle) has welcomed him about as his honored guest.
Evan Zes-Anthony Cochrane-Gisela Chipe (Photo Jeremy Daniel)
The passengers are an interesting assortment – with more in common that appears. Samuel Ratchett (Mark Jude Sullivan) is a sleazy businessman of dubious intent, menacing deportment and sinister entitlement. Helen Hubbard (Karen Ziemba) is an elegantly randy woman with a hale, hearty demeanor and a wide grin that seems to flash fangs when she wants something. Princess Dragomiroff (Donna English) carries her power in her impeccable posture and does not suffer fools. And as Countess Andrenyi, Gisela Chipe is every inch someone you’d swear could hold her own in a high stakes gambling hall as well as a royal court.
When one of their own turns up dead (stabbed eight times), Poirot gives up all hope of vacation and the train — which has become snowbound somewhere in Eastern Europe — becomes a hotbed of suspicion and film-noir worthy intrigue. The earlier murder of a four-year-old child plays a part in the plot, and the specter of the victim hangs overall.
Graham Stevens – Karen Ziemba (Photo Evan Zimmerman for Murphy Made)
Cochrane concentrates on the comedy of Poirot’s egotism and dandyism, managing to be simultaneously contemplative and colorful, subtle and funny. He has a welcome foil with Zes’s officious and unctuously droll train official. Ziemba clearly enjoys herself as the oft married mid-westerner. Her horny, rambunctious Minnesotan belts show tunes on a whim…please someone get her another musical. She is searching for the next in a long line of husbands… or a coupling of a far shorter duration.
The countess (Chipe) is given a background as a physician, the profession of her husband in the novel. It is always handy to have a doctor around when the corpses start piling up in a Christie tale.
Mark Jude Sullivan-Alex Mandell-Leanne Antonio (Photo Jeremy Daniel)
The challenge of depicting locomotion is fabulously handed with Boritt’s clever design. He quickly trucks in on tracks the necessary restaurant cars, compartments– so effectively that one route received a show-stopping round of applause. Coupled with stellar lighting by Morrison and perfect costumes from Mariah Anazaldo Hale this is a slick, richly appointed production.
Every single eccentric portrayed by this gifted ensemble is as vivid as they are memorable. Hushion splendidly weaves all the design and performance elements perfectly. Everything fits together, ticking into place like a fine Swiss watch.
The production runs through May 14th at Paper Mill Playhouse. Tickets and more information at papermill.org.
Featured Photo: Graham Stevens, Gisela Chipe, Anthony Cochrane, Evan Zes by Evan-Zimmerman-for-MurphyMade