“Murder on the Orient Express,” first a popular paperback and later multiple star–studded movies, has always been fun, gorgeous nonsense. The lavish staging now at Everyman is no different, despite the inherent handicap of bringing a complex, many-character mystery to stage.
The production sparkles with high-energy performances, witty banter and beautiful sets. But keeping track of so many characters and their alibis is almost impossible, and the mystery’s solution doesn’t make much sense, as you probably already know if you’ve read the book or seen one of the movies.
Written in 1934 by Agatha Christie, “Murder on the Orient Express” was a best-seller from the start, quickly becoming the most popular work of the already-popular British writer. It’s easy to see why. The story has a marvelous setting and even more marvelous set-up.
The setting: the real-life Orient Express, an ultra-luxurious train that ferried its wealthy passengers from Istanbul to France.
The set-up: A man stabbed to death in the night, his compartment door locked from the inside, as a snowstorm stalls the Orient Express in remote mountains for several days.
It’s a classic locked-room mystery. The characters are trapped, making each one a suspect, as well as a potential next victim. By absurd coincidence, it just so happens that famed detective Hercules Poirot is also aboard, and he’s happy to take on the pleasurable task of solving the mystery. As he sifts through evidence and interviews each passenger, the solution slowly comes into focus.
Without giving too much away, I’ll note that nobody is who they seem to be, not even the murder victim.
Everyman’s stellar cast and elaborate sets bring the train with its wealthy, eccentric passengers to life. The production wisely cuts the number of characters–and therefore suspects–from 12 to eight, and tweaks some of their backgrounds.
The energy level is high throughout, with the cast members clearly enjoying themselves. Of particular note are longtime Everyman resident company member Bruce Randolph Nelson as Poirot, giving the famous detective a thick Belgian accent and even thicker mustache; fellow Everyman superstar Deborah Hazlett as the chatty and oft-married American Helen Hubbard; Helen Hedman as the regal Russian Princess Dragomiroff; new Everyman company member Jefferson A. Russell as train company executive Monsieur Bouc; and Lilian Oben as Countess Andrenyl, a composite of the count and countess portrayed in the novel and movies.
The set ably recreates the luxurious sleeping cabins and dining cars of yore. We can’t help but sigh in delight when Mounsier Bouc describes the deliciousness of the food that will be served. No vending-machine pretzels on this journey—it’s caviar and champagne the whole way. Filmed sequences show the snow and wind outside the windows, and at times it almost felt as though the train was really lurching.
Christie’s book was inspired by two real-life events: the 1932 kidnapping of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh’s baby; and the real-life Orient Express, which Christie rode many times and which did, in 1929, get trapped for six days in the snowy mountains.
From one tragedy and one annoying and dangerous travel delay, Christie crafted a tale populated with eccentric characters who drip with wealth and wit.
This focus on the manners of the 1 percent is a big part of appeal, but the broadly sketched characters and the mechanics of the plot don’t leave room for the emotions and confrontations that would give the story greater resonance. That creates a distance between audience and actors that is particularly challenging for theater.
On this stalled train, with a blood-drenched corpse and a murderer (or murderers) still at large, nobody is impatient or frightened. Insulated by their wealth, the characters just keep bantering, flirting and listening to jazz.
To them, murder is just a game, and one that they’re likely to win.
“Murder on the Orient Express” is showing at the Everyman Theatre through Jan. 11. Tickets and information: everymantheatre.org
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