The Gods of Comedy

Princeton’s McCarter Theatre Center presents the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s delightful new play, directed by Amanda Dehnert. The Gods of Comedy opened March 16 and runs through March 31.

In a university classics department, a normal day is about to collapse into turmoil, thanks to a madcap mix of switched identities, characters who become invisible, and not-so divine intervention. Daphne Rain (played by Shay Vawn) is a bookish young classics professor entrusted by her colleague and boyfriend Ralph Sargent (Jevon McFerrin) with the priceless manuscript of the lost Euripides play, Andromeda. When the manuscript goes missing, she calls on the ancient Greek gods out of desperation. And who turns up? Dionysus and Thalia, the gods of comedy.

The boisterous Dionysus (Brad Oscar) and flirtatious Thalia (Jessie Cannizzaro) turn Daphne’s life upside down as she tries to hide the manuscript’s disappearance from Ralph and their dean (Keira Naughton). Meanwhile, the dean is determined to showcase the prize that evening at a Greek-themed costume party for the school’s big donors. One of these donors is a glamorous actress named Brooklyn de Wolfe (Steffanie Leigh) who sets her sights on Ralph.

Daphne and the gods have to devise a plan to satisfy the dean and keep Ralph away from Brooklyn. A pretty effective distraction arrives in the divine personage of Ares, god of war (George Psomas). Wearing his helmet and cape and brandishing his sword, he’s mistaken for one of the party-goers, and when he intones so confidently, “I am a god,” Brooklyn naturally responds, “Yeah, that’s what all men think.”

The plot of a farce never benefits from minute dissection, but Oscar, Cannizzaro, and Psomas create such strong and entertaining characters, you willingly suspend disbelief, and the many clever touches pile up one after another, keeping the audience roaring. There are a few lulls in act two, but the pace picks up again when Dionysus and Thalia use their powers of metamorphosis to become other characters—a tangle that is baffling for the other characters and hilarious for the audience.

Vawn is sympathetic as the worried academic, simultaneously grateful for the gods’ help and dismayed at the trouble they’re causing. McFerrin is clueless, especially when under Brooklyn’s spell, and Naughton, once she dons her Artemis costume, reveals a naughty side. Psomas plays two small roles, in addition to Ares, each to perfection. And Jason Sherwood designed beautiful sets, especially for Act 2.

McCarter Theatre is easily reached from New York by car or train (New Jersey Transit to the Princeton Junction station, then the shuttle bus into Princeton. The shuttle ends a short walk from the theater and the university’s new arts district, as well as two innovative new restaurants. For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the ticket office online.

photo: T. Charles Erickson

Murder on the Orient Express

Hercule Poirot, Murder on the Orient Express - Corduner

Allan Corduner as Hercule Poirot in McCarter Theatre Center’s Murder on the Orient Express; photo: T. Charles Erickson

Here’s a play for people who like fun! Agatha Christie’s masterpiece, Murder on the Orient Express, has been adapted for the stage by award-winning playwright Ken Ludwig. This world premiere opened March 17 and is on stage at McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton through April 2, directed by McCarter’s artistic director, Emily Mann. Already the buzz about the show is at a high pitch, and it is reportedly on track to sell the most tickets in McCarter history. The popularity of the theater’s earlier foray into Christie-land, last year’s The Mousetrap, required an extended run.

Starting from the opening scene in an elegant Istanbul restaurant, the production design transports you to the menacing—and in Ludwig’s adaptation, humor-laced—world of the story. Tony Award-winning set designer Beowulf Boritt has created a stunning representation of the ill-fated train, the luxe Orient Express, for the cast to play on. Beautifully surmounting the technical difficulties of staging a play whose action mostly occurs on a train, the cars move, the snow falls, the whistle blows, and you are off on a theatrical adventure.

In true Christie (and cozy mystery) style, the violence is minimal, clues are everywhere, red herrings and all, and the ensemble cast is peopled with quirky characters, confined in a setting where every interaction is significant. All gather for the final dramatic reveal, led by Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played by Allan Corduner), in the train’s dining car.

The cast includes an exiled Russian princess (Veanne Cox), a Parisian conductor (Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), a showtune-singing, multiply-married, Minneapolis mahjongg-player (Julie Halston), a dewey nanny (Susannah Hoffman), a glamorous Hungarian countess (Alexandra Silber), an English manservant/secretary (Juha Sorola), an African missionary (Samantha Steinmetz), a military veteran and the murder victim (Max von Essen), and the manager of the Wagon-Lits company, Monsieur Bouc (Evan Zes).

In order to preserve his company’s reputation, Monsieur Bouc is determined to enlist Poirot in solving the murder of an American gangster stabbed in his sleeping car. Poirot finds himself presented with too many clues, and it’s delightful to see Carduner and the cast sort through the information and disinformation presented. Each of the actors brings verve and sharp definition to their performances, especially noting Corduner, Halston, and Silber.

In attendance on opening night was Matthew Pritchard, grandson of Dame Agatha and in charge of her estate. In pre-opening conversations, Pritchard said his grandmother had a great appreciation and love of live theater. How effectively her work transitions to this medium testifies to that sensibility. He commissioned Ludwig to choose one of her stories for a stage adaptation, and Orient was Ludwig’s first choice. Not only is it a story not previously presented on stage, the unusual setting, the striking characters, and dramatic plot create the “sense of occasion” Ludwig strives for.

In addition to Boritt’s glamorous set, the production enjoys wonderful costumes by six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long.

For tickets, call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.