Review: Pittsburgh Public’s “Murder on the Orient Express” is a Pageantry of Solid Acting, Period Costumes, and an Amazing Set Design 

Reviewed by Bob Hoover

Playwright David Mamet recently wrote that “theater on Broadway has largely been replaced by pageantry.” Audiences “come to Broadway exactly as they come to Disneyland. They do not come to risk their hard-earned cash on a problematic event.”

In defense of live theater, competing against the pandemic, dozens of excellent dramas on streaming services and Hollywood films full of special effects, some “pageantry” is warranted to attract audiences and pay the bills.

If the Pittsburgh Public Theater’s latest production is designed to fill the seats at the O’Reilly. Then plan is working, based on the packed house at the April 16 production of Murder on the Orient Express.

The evening opened with a tribute to the late Joan Apt, one of the Public Theater’s founders, by Artistic Director Marya Sea Kaminski and Managing Director Lou Castelli and included her son Jay Apt, former director of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The Public’s inaugural production was The Glass Menagerie in 1975.

Kaminski also directed this familiar warhorse written by Agatha Christie in 1934 and filmed several times, most recently in 2017 with Kenneth Branagh as the relentless detective Hercule Poirot.

Giles (R) with cast members, photo by Michael Henninger

The Public’s Poirot is another warhorse. Martin Giles, a ubiquitous presence on Pittsburgh stages for years, lends charm and humor to the supposedly humorless detective.

In fact, most of the cast are local stage veterans – Lenora Nemetz, Helena Ruoti, James Fitzgerald, and David Whalen. He plays two roles, including the victim. The Broadway veteran Nemetz is a comic joy as an oft-married actress whose eye is still roving.

The rest of the cast is uniformly entertaining, with Ruoti as the imperious Russian princess, Ricardo Vila-Roger playing the train company boss Bouc and Caroline Nicolian posing as a Hungarian countess.

The real star of “Orient Express” is the beautifully designed set by Bruce C. Cutler. His design, using rear projection and a moveable platform, moves seamlessly from a restaurant to a train station to the interior of the cars.

There is a paradox to the Public’s production: It uses a QR code on the two-page handout requiring you to use your phone to read the program. But the audience is advised to shut off its phones during the performance. Even figuring out who plays what character, an essential piece of information, is a struggle.

With that distraction in mind, Murder on the Orient Express is a kind of “pageantry” of solid acting, period costumes, and an amazing set design that overcomes the time-worn plot.

Pittsburgh Public Theater’s production of Murder on the Orient Express runs until May 1. For more information, performance times and tickets visit: https://ppt.org/production/76195/murder-on-the-orient-express

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