“Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express,” has just pulled into the station at Everyman Theatre — and you’re debating whether to jump on board.
You’ve heard about this joke-filled adaptation of Christie’s classic mystery by the Washington-based playwright Ken Ludwig, and it seems to be headed in the right direction. But before you buy tickets, you’d like to learn more about your destination.
Let us help. Below, we’ve put together a kind of topographical map of this production’s hills and valleys to help you decide whether this particular journey is right for you.
Plot: Hercule Poirot, the world’s greatest detective, is vacationing in Instanbul in 1934 when he is unexpectedly summoned back to London by Scotland Yard. Luckily, Poirot runs into an old friend who secures him passage on the opulent Orient Express. Barely has the journey begun when an avalanche stops the train in its, umm, tracks and a thuggish American businessman is discovered brutally stabbed to death. Poirot is convinced that the murder was committed by someone among his group of eccentric fellow passengers, each of whom has something to hide. But, who? And what does the murder have to do with the kidnapping and slaying three years earlier of 5-year-old Daisy Armstrong?
Our Rating: 3 1/2 chugga-chuggas out of 4. Daniel Ettinger’s sumptuous yet structurally economical Art Deco set earns it’s own toot-toot.
Don’t see this if: You expect actor Bruce Nelson’s portrayal of Poirot (famously described as “a quaint, dandified little man”) to be a carbon copy of actor David Suchet’s depiction of the detective on television.
For starters, Nelson is not short and he is not round. In reality, the Baltimore actor is of at least medium height and is thin as an, err, rail. Though Nelson has been given Poirot’s signature mustache with its waxed tips, the ends don’t curl up as Suchet’s do, but dash off in a straight line towards Nelson’s ears as if attempting to escape.
No, Nelson’s portrayal of Poirot is his own — and what a good time the actor seems to be having bringing him to life on stage. As Poirot, Nelson’s expression is deadpan and his comic timing is impeccable. One moment, a hand will suddenly fly up seemingly of its own volition, like a bird released from its cage. And when Nelson is given a line of dialogue to recite that contains multiple “R’s,” he rolls them off with robust rhetorical relish.
See this if: you’ve long suspected that Deborah Hazlett has untapped potential for screwball comedy. Hazlett is best known for her dramatic portrayals of smart, complicated and fragile women at their breaking points. Here, Hazlett plays against type as the brash, provincial American socialite Helen Hubbard; the actress even gets to dance a few steps of the Charleston.
Don’t see this if: you’re a stickler for authentic accents. This production includes a veritable United Nations of characters: an English governess, Scottish colonel, Russian princess in exile, Swedish missionary, Hungarian countess — and of course, the Belgian detective Poirot, who keeps insisting he isn’t French. The accents tend to land momentarily on the actor’s tongues, but instantly melt away like the first snowflakes of winter.
Nonetheless, the verbal slush kind of works. In a melodrama as giddy as “Orient Express,” bad accents are part of the fun. Playwright Ludwig’s script includes intentional misspellings to indicate the specifically mangled pronunciations he desires. (For instance, the Swedish character is instructed to pronounce the verb “will" as “vill.”)
If the playwright isn’t concerned with linguistic fidelity, why should we be?
"Princess Dragomiroff [indicating her companion, Greta Ohlsson]: I have agreed to pay her way if she will assist me as I travel to Paris.
"Michel [the conductor of the Orient Express]: But your usual companion, Miss Schmidt?
"Greta: She iss very sick.
“Princess Dragomiroff: The doctors are calling it a cardiac event, but she is German so it is very unlikely to slow her down.”
See this if: you’re a sucker for scenery. See this even if you think you’re indifferent to scenery. Ettinger’s set will make you a believer — first with its period Art Deco details (the wallpaper! the mahogany inlay! the brass accents!) and then with its ingenuity. Three side-by-side train compartments are mounted on wagons. They wagons are whisked silently on and off stage and are rotated front and back, allowing the scene to change in a moment from a restaurant in Istanbul to the Orient Express’ club car to the train corridors to private compartments. Projected onto screens behind the train’s windows is a constantly changing landscape of mountains and swirling snow.
Don’t see this if: You’re afraid of being blinded by the shine of saddle shoes in the spotlights. David Burdick’s outfits his cast in full-out Thirties glam with penciled eyebrows, bow ties and ropes of pearls. It’s all quite chic -- but it was the footwear that really made me smile. The men wear gleaming two-tone saddles, and, if I’m not mistaken, white spats.
Insider Tip: This production was 90% sold out before it opened, according to Vincent Lancisi, Everyman’s founder and the director of this production; in response to the demand or tickets, the production has been extended for an extra week. So if you want tickets before “Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express” closes Jan. 11, 2020, buy them now. $41-$69. For details, call 410-752-2208 or go to everymantheatre.org.