Well, if you’ve read the Agatha Christie novel, or seen the 1974 Sidney Lumet film adaptation or the 2017 Kenneth Branagh re-make, you know damn well “whodunit.” Which leads to the question: why spend two hours watching the Ken Ludwig theatrical adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express that recently opened at Hartford Stage under the direction of Emily Mann? After all, we work our way through mystery novels, by and large, to have the solution to the crime revealed; it’s why we accept pages of exposition and multiple red herrings. If we already know said solution, what’s the point? The answer to the question with regards to this current production is up for grabs.
Could it be production values? Buy a ticket just to see how scenic designer Beowulf Boritt creates the fabled choo-choo on stage? Yes, that’s intriguing, and Boritt delivers using a sliding stage and horizontal-closing curtain to create the aura of the Orient Express and its movement. First reveal of the elegant coach and dining area garnered well-deserved applause. But then what?
The plot is a variation on the locked-room murder mystery – in this case the locked room is a train stranded and immobile because of a snow storm. As an audience member who well knew who is responsible for the murder of an American gentleman named Samuel Ratchett (Ian Bedford) on the train, my main interest was in how the famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot (David Pittu) would be portrayed. As initially written by Christie, Poirot is persnickety and vain, and Pittu conveys both characteristics to a fault – he gives us a peacock strut as he walks and a simmering disdain for all those who are beneath his intellectual ability. In other words, Pittu’s portrayal of Poirot essentially holds together this somewhat uneven production that isn’t sure whether it wants to be melodrama or farce and, hence, falls between the cracks.
So, back to the question of why attend? Well, there are bright moments to be enjoyed, chief among them is Julie Halston’s snarky portrayal of Helen Hubbard and Veanne Cox’s equally snarky rendering of the aged Princess Dragomiroff. Halston gets to do a true comic-relief scene in which she dances in her stateroom, an extended scene that delights the audience, and Cox rules as the queen (or is that countess?) of the one-liners. Then there’s a nicely blocked scene involving a gun, with the Countess Andrenyi (Leigh Ann Larkin) falling to the floor multiple times to avoid being shot, and the religiously inhibited Greta Ohlsson (Samantha Steinmetz) also falling and cringing in a moment of extreme angst. Enjoyable as all of these are, the delightful parts do not add up to a delightful whole.
Perhaps if I had done an extended post-show audience interview, searching for people who had had no exposure to the Christie novel or subsequent films, I might have gotten a different perspective on the evening, especially whether the solution to the crime was revelatory and worth the two-plus hours of theater. No such interview was held, so I can only say that most of the evening was akin to leafing through an album of old photographs, nodding in recognition, and remembering the initial interest—excitement—engagement the photos captured. For me, there really was no “Aha!” moment – the same might be true for most of the audience, and if not, then we are left with weighing the value of the material being presented. Yes, we go again and again to productions of Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, Death of a Salesman and Doubt, knowing full well what will happen, but we are forever captured by the writing, the artful presentation of humanity’s foibles and follies. Murder on the Orient Express worked well as a mystery novel, and both film versions relied heavily on star-power. Alas, though there is fine acting to be seen in Hartford Stage’s production, it does not overcome the ‘been-there-done-that” of the evening. It’s akin to unwrapping a gaily decorated present whose contents you already know – you feign surprise and enjoyment, but you quickly toss the present aside in search of something else – something that will truly surprise and deliver unexpected enjoyment.
Murder on the Orient Express runs through March 25. For tickets or more information call 860-527-5151 or go to www.hartfordtsage.org.