I read all the Agatha Christie novels in my teens, and remember being enthralled by the fascinating characters she created, even if I can't recall the plots. When I was very young, I saw The Mousetrap in London; I was bemused to see that the creaky old play is still running after sixty years. Murder on the Orient Express is one of Agatha Christie’s best-selling books, but I’d been thinking of all her work as comfortably in the past, and couldn’t quite figure out why a play based on that novel had been chosen for the current Arvada Center’s Black Box Repertory Theatre season. Then I found out that the script is by the irresistibly funny Ken Ludwig, known for Lend Me a Tenor and the musical Crazy for You, and that Geoffrey Kent was directing...and the mystery was solved.
At the beginning of the play, a little girl is abducted by a murderer — which seems a grim beginning to a comically lighthearted play, though the silhouette of the approaching killer is a villainous-looking cartoon shape that tells us not to take things too seriously. After this, we’re introduced to the well-known sleuth Hercule Poirot. He’s in an Instanbul hotel, anxious to catch the luxurious Orient Express back to London, where he’s wanted on a case. From here, all the action takes place on the train, which gets stuck behind a giant snowdrift.
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During the night a murder occurs — because wherever Poirot happens to be, there’ll be a murder. After some hesitation and a lot of persuasion from his friend, Monsieur Bouc, who’s a train administrator, Poirot agrees to solve the crime. The clues are baffling. Someone in a uniform like a conductor’s has been seen, but it isn’t the conductor, and the figure is so slight it could be male or female. There’s a lost button. Some of the several stab wounds on the body are deep and others more shallow.
By now you have some sense of what will happen: All of the passengers — each one a unique character, though who knows if any are who they claim to be — are trapped together. Every one of them will have a story, and there will be compelling reasons to suspect the lot. Eventually, after some cogitation and a lot of keen observation, Poirot will gather everyone in one place and explain to both them and us whodunit. And so it transpires. There are some surprises, but the suspense isn’t very high and there’s not much tension. For one thing, the murdered child has faded from memory. Yes, she’s mentioned, but pretty much as a prop. And besides, the murder victim was so thoroughly dislikable that we can all rejoice in his death.
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But if the plotting is a touch flat, the acting is anything but. The stage is filled with fascinating people. Monsieur Bouc is well-played by Kevin Hart as a harried sidekick, perhaps a kind of Doc Watson to the sleuth. As English nanny Mary Debenham, Jessica Austgen is as straight-backed, strict and precise as Mary Poppins, enunciating every syllable with startling clarity. Edith Weiss’s Princess Dragomiroff, who fled the Bolsheviks, is a perfect model of faded but still imperious European royalty. Naturally, she’s bound to get crosswise with Kate Gleason’s obnoxious, loud and demanding American, Helen Hubbard. Emily Van Fleet trembles between satire and pathos as quivering Greta Ohlsson, whose passion is for tending African babies — and you have to hear the way Van Fleet says that word, babies. Then there’s Josh Robinson, dignified and restrained as Michel the Conductor; Annie Barbour as slender Countess Andrenyi, who also happens to be a doctor; Zach Andrews as both the murderee and Debenham’s gallant Scottish lover; and Jake Mendes’s puzzled Hector. Kevin Rich does well as Poirot, though I sometimes wished his portrayal was a little more textured and eccentric. Perhaps he was holding back to provide a contrast and showcase for the cluster of other characters on board the Orient Express, but this is a show that allows for unlimited eccentricity.
Real skill and intelligence has gone into the staging. Kent directs with elan, humor and elegance. Scene changes are stylized, and accomplished by the actors with such focused precision that each becomes a kind of dance — and several were greeted with applause by the opening-night audience. Not only is the tech first-rate in every dimension, but Kevin Copenhaver’s costumes are a visual feast. They’re not just authentic to the mid-1930s, but each costume also expresses the character of the wearer. The set (Brian Mallgrave) and lighting (Shannon McKinney) make the space beautiful and warmly inviting, and have been perfectly calibrated to the theater’s new in-the-round configuration. While I never traveled on the original Orient Express, I did have the occasional opportunity to stay with my mother in one of those fine old European hotels before they were wrecked by the chains, and the atmosphere of the production, not to mention the array of accents — Belgian, Russian, French, English, Scottish, Swedish — made me homesick for a long-lost life and culture. Dialect coach Jeffrey Parker gets a lot of credit for this: Too often, hearing actors take on foreign accents sets your teeth on edge, because not only are the pronunciations wrong, but you can sense the actors’ self-consciousness. Here, everyone owns his or her character’s provenance.
Every element of the evening clicks into place like one of those detailed, moving and still-exact medieval clocks that are the wonders of old Europe. Combining nostalgia with a dazzling contemporary energy, this is a brilliant production.
Murder on the Orient Express, presented by the Arvada Center’s Black Box Repertory Theatre through May 17, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 720-898-7200, arvadacenter.org.