When “Murder on the Orient Express’’ was published in 1934 by the endlessly prolific doyenne of the British murder mystery, Agatha Christie, it was just the start of what would prove to be a very long life for Christie’s clever handiwork.
Over the next eight-plus decades came a torrent of “Orient Express’’ adaptations for film, radio, and television that prominently included Sidney Lumet’s delectable cinematic bonbon in 1974; a 2010 TV version coproduced by Boston’s WGBH-TV; and Kenneth Branagh’s dreary 2017 film remake, a lugubrious slog in which the real murder victim was the audience’s interest.
So by this point, Christie’s once-shocking story is exceedingly familiar, not just within the universe of Christie connoisseurs but far beyond. Because the answers to the questions of whodunit — as well as whydunit and howdunit — are widely known, another iteration of the oft-told tale requires a compelling reason to exist.
“Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express’’ doesn’t have one.
The Lyric Stage Company of Boston production stars the inimitable Remo Airaldi as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot, but even that bit of dream casting is not enough to rescue Ken Ludwig’s limp stage adaptation of Christie’s novel. Best-known for the mistaken-identity farce “Lend Me a Tenor,’’ Ludwig has crafted an “Orient Express’’ whose tone is as uncertain as some of the accents deployed by the Lyric Stage cast.
Possibly in recognition of those flaws, director Spiro Veloudos (helming his first production since stepping down as Lyric Stage’s producing artistic director) has collaborated with projection designer Seaghan McKay to jazz up the production by enveloping Christie’s story within a film-noir frame, complete with cinematic flashbacks. The device lends “Orient Express’’ a stylish visual texture, with its play of shadow and light nicely augmented by Brynna Bloomfield’s Art Deco-flavored set and Gail Astrid Buckley’s handsome period costumes. But at times, especially in Ludwig’s luridly scripted opening scene, the film-noir approach pushes “Orient Express’’ deeper into the realm of melodrama than the production can comfortably handle.
In case you are somehow not familiar with the plot: “Murder on the Orient Express’’ unfolds during a 1934 rail journey from Istanbul to western Europe that is dramatically interrupted by the discovery that a brutish American businessman, Samuel Ratchett (Davron S. Monroe), has been stabbed to death in his first-class compartment. Ratchett’s murder leaves a trainload of suspects, all of whom Poirot straightaway begins grilling: assembling their back stories, exploring their possible motives, and eventually discovering connections to a horrific, long-ago crime.
Poirot approaches the murder like a high-stakes jigsaw puzzle. If only the stakes seemed high. Playwright Ludwig seems to be aiming for a blend of suspense and comedy, but genuine tension is scarce and laughs are few. Christie adaptations work best when the humor is handled lightly, as a byproduct of Poirot’s numerous eccentricities and of the clash of personalities endemic to a murder investigation, but the humor in this “Orient Express’’ often seems forced.
So do some of the Lyric Stage performances. As is often the case with Christie, many of the characters are but thinly sketched, and Ludwig’s adaptation doesn’t flesh them out. The supporting cast responds with generally broad, one-note characterizations. Only Celeste Oliva, as the coolly composed Countess Andrenyi, is really able to make anything substantive of her role.
The train’s other passengers include a loudly bombastic American named Helen Hubbard (Kerry A. Dowling); the elderly and sardonic Princess Dragomiroff (Sarah deLima); the timorous Greta Ohlsson (Marge Dunn); stout-hearted Colonel Arbuthnot (Monroe again); Mary Debenham (Rosa Procaccino); and Hector MacQueen (Michael John Ciszewski). Also on hand are Monsieur Bouc (Will McGarrahan), an Orient Express honcho and friend of Poirot, as well as Michel the conductor (Scot Colford).
Unsurprisingly but gratifyingly, Airaldi finds ways to convey the wheels-within-wheels workings of Poirot’s mind, delivering a performance that does not allow the detective’s brilliance to be overshadowed by his quirks. One of Boston’s greatest character actors, Airaldi again demonstrates his gift for the idiosyncratic detail. (At one point, as Poirot is boasting of his superior sense of smell, Airaldi sniffs the air like a truffle hound.) He brings just the right balance of arrogance and nonchalance to the introduction by the vain and luxuriantly mustachioed sleuth: “My name is Hercule Poirot, and I am probably the world’s most famous detective.’’
Still, even while enjoying Airaldi’s performance, there were moments when I thought back longingly to his unforgettable portrayal nearly a decade ago at Central Square Theater of another brilliant fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes, in “The Hound of the Baskervilles.’’ At the end of the day, Airaldi’s Poirot plays a decided second fiddle to his Sherlock. Poirot would not like that one bit.
AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS
Adapted by Ken Ludwig. Directed by Spiro Veloudos. Presented by Lyric Stage Company of Boston, through Dec. 22. Tickets from $25, 617-585-5678, www.lyricstage.com
Don Aucoin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.