J.R. Stuart as Detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. Photo: DDP

Murder on the Orient Express

By Ken Ludwig, adapted from the novel by Agatha Christie
Directed by Jim Hesselman

A review by Keith Waits

Entire contents are copyright © 2022 by Keith Waits. All rights reserved.

I saw the film adaptation of Murder On The Orient Express directed by the great Sidney Lumet when it was first released in 1974 and was so enthralled by that masterful, star-studded version that it started me on reading a spate of Agatha Christie books. So I take a keen interest in other renditions (the less said about the 2017 film by Kenneth Branagh, the better).

It may seem hard to believe now, with the famous author viewed as sacrosanct, but in her heyday, Christie was sometimes controversial for what was then viewed as an unorthodox approach to plotting; The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is still noted for its unusual, “shocking” solution, and Orient Express offered another unique solution when published in 1934, securing its author’s reputation. Suffice it to say that, as expected, a group of travelers on a snowbound coach to Calais find themselves with a dead body and all of them are suspects in a murder.

All except the world-famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. What rotten luck for the guilty party that happenstance should place the genius detective onboard. He is at first reluctant, but his good friend Monsieur Bouc (Matthew Brennan), a director of the rail line who also happens to be on the train, convinces him that he must solve the murder lest the matter be turned over to the Yugoslavian police.

The passengers consist of uncouth American businessman Samuel Ratchet (Clay Smith), his secretary, Hector McQueen (Kyle Braun), the Russian Princess Drogomiroff (Rita Thomas), her traveling companion Swedish missionary Greta Ohlsson (Sara Elizabeth King), the loud and brash American Helen Hubbard (Elizabeth Loos), the Hungarian Countess Andrenyi (Taylor Thomas), a British woman, Mary Debenham (Harli Cooper), a British miltary officer Colonel Arbuthnot (Paul McElroy), and finally the conductor, Michel (David Hussey). One will be murdered and the rest will become suspects.  

Ken Ludwig changes a great deal in his adaptation, mostly to streamline things by reducing the number of passengers from twelve to eight, but also by injecting much broader humor and a good deal more melodrama. The result is hugely entertaining even if it alters the tone and sensibility of the source material.

His Poirot is somewhat different as well, more demonstrative and even in one climactic moment, near-hysterical in expressing a profound moral dilemma. As I am so in thrall to the book and first movie, I would have expected to be more annoyed with such a shift, but I must admit that I found these last scenes to be moving, and the play closes with a ruminative monolouge from Poirot that was a lovely return after the comedy to the underlying tragedy and grief of the piece. Christie’s story may be sparkling entertainment, but it is founded on some pretty dark stuff.

For Derby Dinner, there is only one choice in casting Poirot, and J.R. Stuart is it. He finds the resolute commitment to justice and eccentricity of the character with his stylish wardrobe and carefully manicured signature hair and mustache but also expertly injects the more vaudeville humor that Ludwig lends the detective. Poirot was always a great wit and also not above a baser humor, but this is the most comical version I have encountered. It is a fair adjustment of the Belgian to make him more endearing than intimidating for broader commercial appeal, and Stuart is the right man for the job.

That broader humor threads through most of the other performances, with Matthew Brennan an anxious, hilarious, reactionary contrast to Poirot, and Elizabeth Loos pulls no punches crafting the obnoxious Helen Hubbard for maximum impact. I did wonder if the radio on a train traveling from Istanbul would so easily pick up American popular music in 1934, but the brassy tunes appropriately underscore the character’s Ugly American attitude.

Harli Cooper was a solid Mary Debenham, but there is not much to the character in this text, but the Countess Andrenyi is given more complexity by having her husband excised from the story and becoming a doctor and Taylor Thomas has fun with the ambiguity of her assisting and flirting with Poirot. Rita Thomas gave the imperious Princess Drogomiroff the full measure of her acid wit.

The remainder of the ensemble were equally professional and in good service to the story, but Ludwig’s script offers little dimension for them. The flattening of some characters is unfortunate, as the nuance of the relationships is one of the pleasures of Christie’s writing.

The Derby Dinner design team is never slack, and Olivia Coxon has dressed the actors beautifully and with a distinct lack of taste when needed, although why are the Americans always the one’s dressed in tacky, garish patterns? My favorites were Poirot’s elegant suit and the Countess’ satiny allure. Even when restricted to the confines of one train car, Ron Riall manages an expansive and richly detailed setting using the main stage and a platform to the side. When that section was revealed it was “presented“ by Poirot and Bouc, cueing a hearty round of applause. The scene changes were swiftly handled by Alexa Holloway’s lighting.

Any stage adaptation of Agath Christie is likely to sacrifice some of he intricacy of the story and the background of the characters, and Ludwig’s take is no exception. He replaces that with a heightened emotionalism that arguably cheapens the dense narrative. But this has always been the nature of literary adaptations, as qualities inherent in the written word are translated to onstage action and interpretation. Finally, this hugely entertaining Murder on the Orient Express will likley capture the audience’s imagination enough to build an appetite for more Agatha Christie.   

Features Matthew Brennan, Kyle Braun, David Hussey,  Lem Jackson, Sara King, Kathleen Lewis, Elizabeth Loos, Paul McElroy, Tony Milder, Clay Smith, J.R. Stuart, Taylor Thomas, & Rita Thomas,

Murder on the Orient Express

October 5 – November 13, 2022

Derby Dinner Playhouse
525 Marriott Drive
Clarksville, Indiana 47129

Keith Waits is a native of Louisville who works at Louisville Visual Art during the days, including being the host of LVA’s Artebella On The Radio on WXOX 97.1 FM / ARTxFM.com, but spends most of his evenings indulging his taste for theatre, music and visual arts. His work has appeared in LEO Weekly, Pure Uncut Candy, TheatreLouisville, and Louisville Mojo. He is now Managing Editor for Arts-Louisville.com.