“Murder on the Orient Express” with a streak of farce

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Anthony Cochrane and Mark Jude Sullivan on stage during a on the train scene
Anthony Cochrane and Mark Jude Sullivan in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Casey Hushion, photographed by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

A mix of mystery, death, 1930s glamour, and farce in the scales of justice

Anthony Cochrane, Mark Jude Sullivan, and Karen Ziemba on stage
Anthony Cochrane, Mark Jude Sullivan, Karen Ziemba in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Casey Hushion, photographed by Evan Zimmerman for MurphyMade

Most people up until now would recall Murder on the Orient Express, Agatha Christie’s mystery set on a luxury trans-European express train, from its 1974 and 2017 film adaptations. However, this stage adaptation of the 1934 novel, currently being offered by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn, not only keeps most of the suspense intact but also uncovers a streak of farce in the interactions among ten strangers trapped by a blizzard together on the fabled train.

Stage adaptor Ken Ludwig is best known as a master of farce. His multitude of comedies includes Lend Me a Tenor and its sequel, A Comedy of Tenors (which both played at the Paper Mill Playhouse); Dear Jack, Dear Louise, a love letter to his parents presented last year at the George Street Playhouse; and the libretto for the Tony® award-winning musical Crazy for You. 

While he might not be the person you’d think of when looking for a Christie adaptation, surprisingly, Ludwig keeps the flavor of the best of Christie’s plotting and the atmosphere of between-the-wars Europe, all the while bringing in enough humor to make this version of Murder on the Orient Express a fresh revelation to admirers of the original work.

The performing challenges in this sparkling play are well met by the cast, who truly deserved their standing ovation. They are led by Anthony Cochrane’s pitch-perfect portrayal of Hercule Poirot, the Belgian detective charged with discovering who among his fellow passengers is a vicious murderer. Cochrane’s two monologues — at the beginning, creating an expectation of mystery, and at the end, poignantly stating how this case above all has lasted with Poirot — are magnificent showcases for his acting chops.

Multiple award-winning actress Karen Ziemba nearly steals the show as a vulgar (for its era) American widow, showcasing both her comedic and musical talents. Donna English wields pointed humor as an aged Russian princess. Evan Zes shines, recreating his McCarter role as the manager of the Orient Express. Mark Jude Sullivan makes the most of his dual roles as a stuffy Scots colonel and an unsettling American businessman, while Gisela Chípe shines as an enchantingly beautiful Hungarian countess who is also a medical doctor. 

Credit also goes to director Casey Hushion, who skillfully guided the cast through the twists and turns of Ludwig and Christie’s glamorous mystery.

The production team’s work complements the acting and the play perfectly. Beowulf Boritt recreates — and, dare I say, improves upon — his original scenic design, especially his spectacular rolling train set, which conjures images of the great trains that crisscrossed Europe. The scenery is enhanced by Jason Lee Courson’s magical projections. Mariah Anzaldo Hale’s costuming excels in setting a visual tone of mixed classes and befitting styles of dress.

Stephanie Gibson, Evan Zes, Donna English, and Anthony Cocrane on stage
Stephanie Gibson, Evan Zes, Donna English, and Anthony Cocrane in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by Casey Hushion, photographed by Jeremy Daniel

I must state that this production is a close copy of one given by the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton back in 2017. While there have been some improvements to the script, playgoers such as I, who saw McCarter’s production, will feel a warm, enjoyable wave of deja vu watching this show. However, this does not diminish the entertainment value or the sheer fun of Paper Mill’s excellent production.

Murder on the Orient Express is that perfect blend of incongruous-seeming elements —adventure, humor, mystery, murder — that will make you very happy you decided to take this ride. I encourage you to head to Millburn’s Paper Mill Playhouse and get your tickets to make the journey that is Murder on the Orient Express!

Murder on the Orient Express is presented by the Paper Mill Playhouse in Millburn through May 14, 2023. For tickets and information, visit papermill.org or call 973-376-4343.

Allen Neuner
Allen Neuner is the theater reviewer at Out in Jersey magazine. Jersey born and raised, Allen went to his first Broadway play in 1957 and has been deliriously in love with live theater ever since. Allen has been accepted into the American Theatre Critics Association, a professional organization of theatre journalists. He has been partnered to music reviewer Bill Realman Stella, with whom he is also deliriously in love, for over 20 years. They live in an over-cluttered house in Somerville.