JUPITER — What do you get when you cross a popular murder mystery by Dame Agatha Christie with the comedy of Tony and Olivier Award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig?
You get a serio-comic stage version of Murder on the Orient Express, the often-filmed whodunit, chosen to open the season of the Maltz Jupiter Theatre on Thursday, Nov. 2.
What explains the enduring popularity of mysteries in general and this complex, psychological tale specifically? “What we like as audience members, whether we’re reading them or seeing them, we want to be the detective,” says Andrew Sellon, who will play Christie’s renowned moustachioed Belgian sleuth Hercule Poirot at the Maltz. “We want the chance to put on the deerstalker cap or the little moustache, to show we’re as smart as the detective. It’s like a mental jigsaw puzzle, trying to find what it adds up to. It’s highly interactive. And don’t you feel a little cheated if you haven’t seen the clues?
“It’s not about the prose. It’s about the plot,” says Sellon. “And not only that, it’s the psychology. I guess it was the first time where I saw someone exploring the darker side of people’s psyches. It was through (Christie’s) books that I came to realize that literally any of us could be a murderer, under the right circumstances. Which is kind of terrifying, I think. But also exciting, for a reader or a viewer.”
Lawyer-turned-playwright Ludwig is best known for his long-running Broadway hits, Lend Me a Tenor and Crazy for You. But he also won an Edgar Award in 2012 for his mystery play, The Game’s Afoot, and that is what led the Christie estate to seek him out and offer him the opportunity to adapt any of Christie’s stories for the theater. He did not hesitate to say yes and to choose Murder on the Orient Express, about the homicide of a much-hated American businessman aboard the elegant Istanbul-to-London train populated with passengers who each have a motive for killing him.
In addition to adding humor to the story, Ludwig has focused down the narrative. “There’s a lot more people on the train in the book. That’s too much for two hours on the stage,” says Sellon. “So I think he did a great job of whittling it down, removing some characters, combining some characters in a very clever way, so that he distills the story down to just this one little train car of suspects.
“And what I love about (Maltz director) Peter Amster’s production is that he too is drawn to that tipping point between the funny and the dark. We’re all working to bring out that there’s not just a funny and exciting mystery going on here but also something deeply emotional that resonates with Poirot and all the characters. I think if we don’t have the humor, this could become a very dark two hours in the theater. Having that humor is a bit of release, that allows us to breathe a little bit, which Ken Ludwig is very good at doing and Peter is very good at finding.”
“So having those moments to breathe, and really fall in love with all these characters, one by one, gives us the chance to both expect that they’re the murderer, but also not want them to be,” says Creg Sclavi, the production’s assistant director. “Maybe this person is (the murderer) but you find something about him or her that you love. Humor is really a way or sort of lowering that curtain and allowing us to connect with each of these characters in their own individual way.
“It’s what Peter calls the balance between shticks and stakes,” Sclavi adds. “There’s some very serious murder stuff going on in this, but there’s shtick blended in with the stakes that leaven it, that makes it such an appealing mixture for the audience.”
Sellon feels certain that even those who saw the movie versions of Murder on the Orient Express and remember how they end can still enjoy the stage show. “What I would say, and someone famous said this before me, ‘It’s not about the destination but the journey.’ Yes, it’s a whodun\it, but it’s not just a whodunit. It’s also ‘Who are these people and what are the emotional stakes for them?’ You’re learning to care about these people as it’s going along. So even if you know where it’s going, you’re going to see these characters in a different light than you would have seen them in one of the two films. Yes, the ending is the same, but it’s a bit different along the way.”
As Sellon says of his character, Hercule Poirot, “He’s a little middle-aged man who is really, really particular about everything in his life. Not just about the mysteries, but the foods he eats, the clothing he wears, the pin that goes in his necktie, the wax that he uses for his precious moustache. His hair must always remain black even as it turns to gray. As I get older, I get that. I become him in a lot of ways.”
This is the second production of Murder on the Orient Express for Mallory Newbrough, having appeared in the play at Coral Gables’ Actors’ Playhouse last season. At the Maltz, she will be playing English governess Mary Debenham. Asked to describe her, she says, “Mary is the romantic ingenue, this girl who clearly wants to be loved. I think she’s a steadfast woman who has a strong moral compass, that come into question. Am I the murderer? I could be. So do I want to portray myself as the least likely to be the murderer? That’s my challenge. Where do I draw the line?”
Agatha Christie published Murder on the Orient Express in 1934, the year in which the action takes place. Nevertheless, Sellon feels certain that the story will speak to an audience in 2023, almost 90 years later. “It is such a thrill ride, it is so much fun, but the reason this one stays with us and why it was Dame Christie’s favorite Poirot is that there’s more to it, that there is a deeper resonance about humanity,” he says. “It’s all of the fun of an Agatha Christie murder mystery, but with this deeper resonance about our personal responsibility to one another. And how do you balance that with the law, with justice?”
“It asks us to really think about the idea if how far we will go if we see something that is unjust,” says Sclavi. “Where do we draw our line, the line between good and just. Every person that sits in the audience, everyone that picks up the book, has to decide what was right and who do I actually agree with. And that is something that is truly timeless. It’s a true murder mystery, with a true moral conundrum, plus Ken Ludwig’s comedy. It’s the shtick with the stakes, and the stakes always win.”
MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, Maltz Jupiter Theatre, 1001 E. Indiantown Road, Jupiter. Through Sunday, Nov. 12. $50-$95. 561-575-2223.