Cinematic is the proper word for McCarter Theatre's dramatic setting of Agatha Christie's Murder on the Orient Express. It's a lithe, pared-down, forward-rushing two hours, a glittering entertainment with just enough serious point to send you home thoughtful.
Quite a talent trust created this one. Start with Christie and her 1934 thriller, in which a luxury train struggles westward from Istanbul, getting stuck in the snow somewhere near Belgrade, when something terrible happens. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is on board and takes up the case — one, he tells us, that challenged every value he holds as a lawman. The novel was made into a star-studded Oscar-winning film in 1974; a Kenneth Branagh-directed version is due this year.
Funmeister Ken Ludwig (Lend Me a Tenor and much else) had his way with the story. Emily Mann produced, gathering a bunch of Tony-winners to design the train (Beowulf Boritt), the ambience, and especially the wardrobe. That fell to William Ivey Long, who splendidly combines new designs with actual 1930s clothes.
Max von Essen (in bed), with (clockwise from left), Allan Corduner, Evan Zes, and Alexandra Silber in Murder on the Orient Express at McCarter Theatre.
A scream stage right beckons all to rush the length of the train car; the set moves underneath them as they clamber from coach to coach. But thanks to the Christie tension, the express-train plot, and the broad-stroke acting, the spectacular set seldom overwhelms the people.
Orient Express might be light entertainment but for its 1934 undertone: instability, decay of institutions, depression, dread of impending catastrophe. "The law must be obeyed," Poirot shouts, "or we become barbarians!" We recall that opening kidnapping (modeled on the 1933 Lindbergh abduction/murder in East Amwell, N.J.), seed of a sick vine. Murder on the Orient Express leaves us in a familiar place: fear of lawlessness, darkness, barbarians at the gate.