Behind the Scenes at Murder on the Orient Express

set model, dining car

3-D Printer Model of Dining Car, Beowulf Boritt; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

McCarter Theatre Center’s annual Backstage Tour was expertly timed this year. Participants got the inside scoop on the fantastic sets and costumes created for the world premiere of Ken Ludwig’s Murder on the Orient Express, directed by McCarter artistic director Emily Mann.

Because McCarter does an elaborate version of A Christmas Carol every December, the production team couldn’t start creating the sets and costumes for Agatha Christie’s iconic story until early January, explained David York, the quiet genius who is McCarter’s Director of Production.

By then, they had the costume sketches from six-time Tony winner William Ivey Long, and the set designer, in this case Tony Award-winning Beowulf Boritt, had presented the production team with a highly detailed model of the set produced by a 3-D printer. Creating the sets and costumes involved  thirty-five crew members and some seven thousand hours of labor, first in the construction and costume shops, then, in a week of very long days, making everything work on stage.

Stage set

Portion of the stage set, Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theatre; photo: Vicki Weisfeld

The production team built two and a half truly spectacular railway cars that travel back and forth across the stage, using a braided wire rope system, much like San Francisco’s cable cars. The production also required a gorgeous new curtain, which has moving panels that can mask portions of the set, as needed. (Four painters spent four {?} days stenciling the Turkish design on the curtain.) Once the timing of every aspect of the play was finalized, managing the rail car and curtain movement is computer-operated.

Prop Master Michele Sammarco described the high degree of authenticity the production crew strives for. In a brief scene, the railway conductor delivers a tray with a roll and coffee. The prop department decorated both sides of the cup with the period-correct Orient Express logo, a detail probably no one in the audience can see, but which conveys a sense of being “really there” for the cast. Similarly, eight characters need passports from different countries. All eight look different and include the correct cast member’s photo and information.

Getting both the big, splashy elements—like the railroad cars—as well as the innumerable small touches right makes a big difference in the quality of the theater-goer’s experience. They are why eighteen thousand people have rushed to see this show in its two and a half-week run. If you’re not one of them, you have until Sunday, April 2, to try to get tickets! Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit the box office online.

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.


disgraced, Caroline Kaplan & Maboud Ebrahimzadeh

Caroline Kaplan & Maboud Ebrahimzadeh, photo: T. Charles Erickson

McCarter Theatre Center, Princeton, N.J., is presenting Ayad Akhtar’s Pulitzer Prize-winning drama Disgraced, through October 30. The production, directed by Marcela Lorca, tells the story of four Manhattan friends with diverse religious and ethnic backgrounds. They are a successful, congenial group until a dinner party devolves into a series of confrontations that painfully reveal the schisms beneath the surface. It is a blistering commentary on identity politics and the nation’s most-produced play in the 2015-2016 season.

The characters are lawyer Amir (played by Maboud Ebrahimzadeh), who has masked his Pakistani and Muslim heritage, “passing” as Indian. Amir is pressured by his wife and nephew, Hussein (Adit Dileep)—who has changed his name to the more American Abe Jensen—to look in on legal proceedings against a controversial imam accused of terrorism. Amir initially resists, fearing his act may be misinterpreted by his firm’s Jewish senior partners.

His beautiful wife Emily (Caroline Kaplan), Caucasian and apparently Christian, is a painter and in her own work is entranced with the artistic language of Islam. In turn, she entrances their Jewish friend and Whitney curator Isaac (Kevin Isola), who wants to include her paintings in a high-profile exhibit. Isaac met Emily through Jory (Austene Van), his African-American wife and another associate in Amir’s law firm.

These convoluted relationships could go wrong in many ways, and do at the ill-fated dinner party. The social landscape under their feet crumbles. By the play’s end, all of them are disgraced, one way or another, publicly or not.

It is director Lorca’s aim that the audience empathize with each of the characters. She says, “A play like Disgraced has the power to hold mirrors to us, invite us to embrace complexities, ponder our contradictions, widen our view of others, and invite us to practice empathy, one character at a time.” Her success in achieving this is evidenced by the dead silence in the theater for many seconds after the play ended and the standing ovation the cast received.

The play raises important questions about identity and self-identity, passive observer and activist, and religious and secular choices in a fragmented American society, as well as the persistent and entangling prejudices (in the original, pre-judging sense, emphasis on “judging”) that lurk inside each of us. “Who is an American?” it asks, and “Who gets to decide?” It’s a 90-minute production that rapidly moves into the quicksand of what the playwright calls our “degraded social discourse.”

McCarter has prepared a show website rich with information, including an essay on Islamic art and a Velázquez painting that provide an important symbolic backdrop in the story. Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit

Bathing in Moonlight

Bathing in Moonlight

Hannia Guillen & Raúl Méndez, photo by T. Charles Erickson

Thirteen years ago, McCarter Theatre’s artistic director Emily Mann and playwright Nilo Cruz teamed up to present the premiere of his Pulitzer Prize-winning Anna in the Tropics, and their new collaboration—the world premiere of Bathing in Moonlight—is terrific! On stage 9/16-10/9.

In today’s Miami, three generations of a Cuban family are exiled. The widowed grandmother Martina (Priscilla Lopez) has early dementia and feels she’s never found her place in America; daughter Marcela (Hannia Guillen) is desperate to hold the family together in tough economic circumstances; and granddaughter Trini (Katty Velasquez) is an assimilated American teen, bent on a career in marine biology. Two men disturb the stability of this affectionate home.

Marcela’s brother Taviano (Frankie J. Alvarez) is away, studying to become a doctor, which may finally solve the family’s precarious finances. Her beloved piano was sold to help pay for his education, but he’s been out of touch for two years. When he returns, his resemblance to his father discomposes the already confused Martina. Worse is the news he gives Marcela—he’s failed his medical exams.

The other man in their lives is Father Monroe (Raúl Méndez), a dedicated and sympathetic parish priest. He lets Marcela play the piano at the church and, attuned to the family’s poverty, lends her money to cover their rent. Marcela finds him attractive in an unattainable way. However, the attraction is mutual, and difficult choices loom.

Director Mann considers Cruz “one of the great poets of the American theater, akin to Tennessee Williams,” and certainly in this play, the poetry, humor, and humanity in these simple situations shines through. Cruz thinks of his works as musical compositions, with each character an instrument contributing to the whole. Their speech contains Spanish rhythms, and even the three levels of Cuban accent create a chord, with the abuela’s accent the strongest, Marcela’s medium-strength, and the granddaughter’s almost disappeared.

The role of Father Monroe is the U.S. stage debut for Mexican actor Raúl Méndez, and he is powerful in it. From the opening when he charms the audience with a sermon about inclusion, his every gesture and expression is pitch-perfect. He’s a stand-out in a strong cast. Lopez and Velasquez imbue the aging grandmother and sprightly granddaughter with personality and verve. Cuban Alvarez in the dual-role of father and son expertly plays two generations. The most opaque character is Marcela, oddly, and I think that’s the play, not Guillen’s performance. Marcela is surrounded by people with so many needs, and so accustomed to putting those needs first, it’s hard for her to come into her own.

Charles Isherwood in the New York Times was ungenerous in his review, saying, “the Catholic Church’s strictures on the priesthood (no women, no marriage), . . . which even many Catholics consider ludicrously out of step with today’s world — have been fodder for debate in the popular media for years,” but this is a narrow interpretation. The play unfolded against the backdrop of Father Monroe’s opening sermon about including “the other,” about how we shouldn’t construct walls to keep people out, but to bring them in. To me, that was (alas!) as relevant to 2016 as to 1716 or to 1139, particularly for our Latino brethren.

The play, which received an Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, raises interesting high-level questions about faith, orthodoxy, exile, and love across generations, beautifully staged and acted—well worth the trip to Princeton!

McCarter has prepared a show website rich with information. Call the box office at 609-258-2787 or visit

All the Days

All the Days, McCarter Theatre

Caroline Aaron & Stephanie Janssen in All the Days (photo: T. Charles Erickson)

At McCarter Theatre in Princeton through May 29, is the world premiere of Sharyn Rothstein’s new family “dramedy,” All the Days. Three generations have their issues: divorced parents in their sixties, uptight divorced daughter, and a grandson approaching his bar mitzvah. The central conflict, though, is mother-daughter. Author Rothstein says, “Mothers and daughters, if they can stand it, should see the play together.”

The action begins in the mother’s kitchen as she recuperates from eye surgery, and her daughter convinces her to come to Philadelphia “until the bar mitzvah.” The Philly living room becomes the setting for most of the play’s numerous short scenes in which the characters laugh together, yell at each other, and reveal their secrets and desires.

Caroline Aaron plays mother Ruth Zweigman, overweight and overbearing, afflicted with diabetes and its consequences. To manage her fears and resentments, not to mention her grief over the death of her only son, she lashes out. Early on, I found her constant comebacks and jibes simply unpleasant, but Ruth warms as the play unfolds.

Daughter Miranda (played by Stephanie Janssen) doesn’t have the temperament for the constant sparring with mom and fled Long Island for the city of brotherly love, Philadelphia. A social worker and newly converted Christian, Miranda’s in the business of fixing other people’s problems, and is frustrated by a mother who doesn’t want to be fixed.

Ruth’s ex-husband Delmore, played by Ron Orbach, is trying to rekindle a relationship with his prickly ex-wife, drawing on her nostalgia and, perhaps, thinking ahead to what his “liver disease” will bring. Ruth sets him straight, saying, “You can’t live in the past and the future at the same time.”

Rothstein holds a degree in public health as well as her MFA, and wove into this play significant public health concerns—problems of diabetes, diet, and stress-related illness among them.

It takes an unerring sense of timing to keep a two and a half hour production moving without a single check-your-watch moment, which McCarter Artistic Director Emily Mann accomplishes superbly as director. Mann says, “I laughed out loud as I read [Rothstein’s] fiercely funny characters, exquisitely wrought, struggling with dilemmas at once heartbreaking and hilarious.”

Leslie Ayvazian plays Ruth’s sister Monica, absolutely able to give as good as she gets and a long-time realist where Delmore is concerned. Justin Hagan plays Miranda’s boyfriend Stew only now meeting her parents and soon realizing why he’s been spared heretofore. Yet Stew recognizes the mother’s essential loneliness and suggests she meet a friend of his—an herbalist, whom Ruth styles “a medical man,” who soon evolves into “a doctor, a surgeon.” This friend, Baptiste Wright, played by Raphael Nash Thompson, provides a welcome layer of calm and understanding to Ruth, like a smoothing, soothing layer of butter over the bumpy and fractured muffin underneath. Matthew Kuenne is the bar mitzvah boy.

Production credits to Daniel Ostling (sets), Jess Goldstein (costumes), Jeff Croiter (lighting), and Mark Bennett (music and sound  design).

For tickets, call McCarter Theatre’s box office (609)258-2787  or visit the box office online.

Baby Doll–McCarter Theatre’s Season Opener

Baby Doll, Tennessee Williams, McCarter Theatre

Hoffman and McDermott in Baby Doll

Perhaps Tennessee Williams and comedy don’t usually share your same mind-space, but here is a comedy-drama rather neglected in the back of his vast repository of work. Princeton’s McCarter Theatre (link includes a behind the scenes video) has found it, resurrected it, and mounted it in an exciting production on view through October 11.

The play, Baby Doll, was always a mashup. It began with two one-acts (“27 Wagons Full of Cotton” and one with a title something like “The Dinner Nobody Wanted”). It was turned into a script for a 1956 Elia Kazan movie starring Caroll Baker, Karl Malden, an Elie Wallach in his first movie role. That version went through many Kazan-initiated revisions and excited much Church opposition for its racy content—tame today compared to prime time tv. Williams later wrote a full-length stage play based on the screenplay, Tiger Tail, that had a short Broadway run in 1999. But generally, the project lay neglected.

Recently, it was retranslated and revived in France by Pierre Laville, and when McCarter’s Emily Mann read Laville’s version, she saw great potential. She and Laville share “adapted for the stage” credits, as further work had to be done by Mann to reflect American perspectives, particularly regarding race relations in Mississippi in the early 1950s. Miraculously, two weeks before rehearsals began, Mann discovered in Princeton University’s Firestone Library the original movie script by Williams, as he wrote it before Kazan’s “help.” More revisions ensued.

“Baby Doll” is a 19-year-old beauty, married to a much older man, Archie Lee Meighan and living in a falling-apart plantation house (handsome stage set). Baby Doll thought she was not “ready for marriage” at age 18. Although the wedding took place then, it is yet to be consummated (she still sleeps in her crib), according to the deal she, Archie Lee, and her father made before his death. The waiting—which is to end in two more days when Baby Doll turns 20—is driving Archie crazy. He both loves and lusts after her, feelings she does not return.

Archie Lee is nearly destitute, having lost his cotton gin business to the nearby Syndicate plantation, and Baby Doll is furious that the house’s furniture is repossessed. When the Syndicate’s gin is destroyed in a not-so-mysterious fire, the young plant manager, handsome Silva Vacarro, pays the Meighans a visit, bringing with him 27 wagons full of cotton for Archie’s gin. When Archie leaves to take care of the cotton, Silva—an Italian and exotic in those parts—tries to trick Baby Doll into revealing her husband’s role in the fire, and, as New York Times reviewer Charles Isherwood says, “we can practically see her little mind clicking along a few beats behind her tongue.”

The comedy in the play comes not from Neil Simon-style one-liners, but out of the human absurdities of normal, everyday action and impulse. In a post-show discussion, the actors said Mann insists they play their lines straight; playing for laughs would cheapen the effect. That earnestness is what makes the four characters—Baby Doll (Susannah Hoffman), Archie Lee (Robert Joy), Silva (Dylan McDermott), and Baby Doll’s Aunt Rose Comfort (Patricia Conolly)—so believable. While you’re chuckling, your heart is twisting. The play ends on a bit of a Scarlett O’Hara moment, with Baby Doll’s resolution to let tomorrow take care of itself.

Veteran actor Patricia Conolly talked about some of the similarities between the elderly, half-deaf, semi-oblivious maiden aunt she plays here and other Williams characters she’s portrayed. Such women live on the edges of family and society, and they must make enormous effort to “get along,” even with the most demanding hosts (“I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” Blanche DuBois says.) Otherwise, as Aunt Rose Comfort puts the problem, they “have no place to go.” (Aunt Rose is a secondary character who manages to put a monkey wrench in situations fairly often, being where she shouldn’t be or not being where she should be. And, if you’ve ever had an elderly relative who’s become hard-of-hearing, you’ll know Williams got it right: she hears what she wants to hear!)

At only 90 minutes, Baby Doll is not as complex as Williams’s Big 3: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Streetcar Named Desire, and The Glass Menagerie, but it’s well worth adding to your Williams experience.

Five Mile Lake

lake, dock

(photo: Greg Seitz, Creative Commons license)

McCarter Theatre’s final production of the season, Rachel Bonds’s new play, Five Mile Lake, explores the differences and similarities between two pairs of young people. Brother Rufus makes a surprise visit to the “small, somewhat desolate town near Scranton,” bringing his Manhattan girlfriend (Peta) with him. His brother Jamie works in a coffee-and-muffin shop and talks about hockey to his co-worker Mary, whom he is obviously desperate to talk love to. The small town and the lake and the old house he’s fixing up are his world, but Mary just wants to get away. All of them, on the cusp of full adulthood, are settling into their lives, and, looking at what’s ahead, they’re filled with satisfaction or horror.

As in life, everything is not as it seems. The brother who “got out” is facing an abyss of failure on all fronts. His supposedly successful girlfriend also feels the loss of possibilities. The young coffee shop worker who wants to leave believes she’s held back by her brother, but her own shrinking ambitions hem her in. All the characters except Peta have known each other essentially all their lives, and the dynamics among them spring in many directions.

Bonds’s dialog is modern and witty and totally believable. Totally. It’s delivered with precision and heart by a super cast. Kristen Bush, who was outstanding in McCarter’s recent production of Proof, is Mary; Tobias Segal is a moving Jamie, saying much with every body posture—the polar opposite of the constrained Octavius Caesar he portrayed in McCarter’s season-opener, Antony and Cleopatra. Nathan Darrow’s Rufus breezes in from the big city reeking of success that soon becomes the stink of something else. Mahira Kakkar is the girlfriend, desperate to talk about her real situation, and finally, Jason Babinsky is Mary’s PTSD-afflicted brother Danny, manic and wheedling. On stage until May 31. Watch for this play in your area—90 minutes of excellent drama.


Baskerville, McCarter

Lucas Hall & Gregory Wooddell in Ken Ludwig’s Baskerville

In the fan fic spirit I wrote about yesterday, the current production at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre, Baskerville, is a yet another take on the perennial Sherlock Holmes favorite.

Playwright Ken Ludwig wrote this version as a romp through the moors. Aside from the commercial differences with fan fic, another difference–and one that weakens the show–is that it so closely follows the original tale (“canon” in the fan fic vocab). Ludwig doesn’t have the freedom for farce of his Lend me a Tenor or Moon over Buffalo. Though it lacks fic’s mind-bending flights of fantasy, the production is massively entertaining, nonetheless, and no doubt some audiences prefer a retelling versus a reimagining.

The two main characters are ably played by Lucas Hall (Dr. Watson), who has the occasional chance to mug at the audience when encountering some particular absurdity, and Gregory Wooddell (Holmes). Ludwig has written both of these parts mostly as foils for the other actors, and they often come across as excessively bland. All the other characters, whether playing significant roles or walk-ons, whether servants or opera stars, whether German or Castilian, are played by Jane Pfitsch, Stanley Bahorek, and Michael Glenn. This calls for manic pacing and lightning fast costume changes, which become part of the fun. Can they do it? Pfitsch calculates that during a week of this production she makes 200 costume changes.

An early decision was to make this a fully costumed show, giving every character a full outfit, as if they were on stage for twenty minutes, not two. Costume “stations” are set up all around backstage, and a specific costume is positioned where a player will exit or enter. Often two costumers help get the old off and the new on—sometimes over the old outfit, sometimes as the character is walking. Michael Glenn wears the same shirt throughout, but has individual neckties for each character he plays. With no time to tie them, the secret is magnets.

The crew that enables all the costume changes and special effects to occur precisely on time deserves special recognition. The production makes full use of McCarter’s generous under-stage traproom with its elevators and hoses for smoke and fog effects and has other surprises in store.

Baskerville is a co-production with Washington D.C.’s Arena Stage, and although it was rehearsed and the effects all mapped out here in Princeton, it played in D.C. first. You don’t have much time: It closes March 29. Tickets here.