It is nearly two o’clock on a winter’s afternoon in Princeton. In the lower level of McCarter Theater is a room appointed like a small apartment — a kitchenette with two small couches.
Enter Ken Ludwig. The Broadway and London hit writer is away from his home and wife in Washington, D.C., and attending rehearsals for the world premiere of his 24th play, “Murder on the Orient Express.” It’s on McCarter’s stage through April 2.
Casually dressed in a dark blue sweater and light trousers, Ludwig is on lunch break and soon sinks into a couch and opens up a container of chicken curry salad. He also opens himself to a series of questions about his new work, his personal background, and writing on and off stage.
“Agatha Christie’s estate came to me,” Ludwig says about his decision to dramatize one of the most popular novels by the undisputed bestselling novelist of all time — 66 detective novels and 14 short story collections selling more than a billion copies in English and another billion in translation. Christie, born in 1890, also wrote the world’s longest running play, “The Mousetrap.” It opened in London in 1974, two years before the writer died.
“They said, ‘We haven’t done one of the books for the stage in 30 years and asked me to pick one,” says Ludwig about the first stage version of the 1934 novel of dandy Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (played at McCarter by British stage and screen actor Allan Corduner) solving a murder mystery aboard a train packed with elegant and mysterious passengers traveling in style from Paris to Istanbul. The story was previously adapted for film, television, and radio, and a new film version is scheduled to be released this year.
“There are challenges inherent in putting any mystery story on the stage,” says Ludwig. “(This one) is very cerebral. It is filled with details, and it is also filled with emotion or it will fail. That’s what stage pieces are all about, heart. It’s a balance to make sure that we care about the people while telling an intricate story on the way.”
Then there’s the problem of dialogue on the page coming alive on the stage. “That’s true of anyone you adapt, no different than adapting Arthur Canon Doyle [creator of Sherlock Holmes and the novel ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’] or ‘The Three Musketeers.’ What makes a novel work, narrative, doesn’t work in the theater. So there’s a lot of adapting. The Christie estate said, ‘We picked you and we are taking a hands-off approach.’ They have no anticipation that the dialogue will be the same.”
Another challenge is that — except for the opening — all the play’s action takes place on a train. “Christie set this essentially in one room. It is good for comedies and mysteries to be set in a small place because it is very combustible, your emotions will be set off because you’re in close quarters. It is great for this genre.”
But, he says, there are logistical stage problems. “On a train you only have two entrances. In a restaurant you can have five.” The solutions, he says, are addressed in the writing. “I write long hand and sometimes make a sketch in the corner. If you can’t see it unfold, you’re not a playwright. As a playwright you see and hear everything in your head. The train is a great challenge. But it’s great because everyone is together.”
A prominent playwright who established himself with a string of comedies “Lend Me a Tenor“ (1989), “Crazy for You” (1992), and “Moon Over Buffalo” (1995) and known regionally for the McCarter premiers “A Comedy of Tenors” (2015) and “Baskerville”(also in 2015), Ludwig says reporters always ask him about his law-related background. “I went to law school to support my ability to go into the theater,” he says, admitting to his former career in international law in Washington, D.C. His mentor was Monroe Leigh, an advisor to the State Department during Henry Kissinger’s tenure.
“I came from a family that encouraged me to do it. I have the upmost respect for the law. I enjoyed it. It didn’t do anything conducive to my passion. (But) it gave me time to write plays. I wrote plays when I was in high school, so I didn’t come late (to playwriting). After graduate school, I would write four hours a day, 4 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. When I had a success on Broadway I worked part-time.” He gave up law completely after a second success.
Asked about the using language for both law and theater, Ludwig says, “In law you are always using the language to persuade. In theater you’re creating art and atmosphere and often not being precise. The imprecision creates a sense of poetry. I think the theater is the antithesis of law.”
He then mentions a commonality between the two professions. “You need to be disciplined in order to be successful. In law school you write very hard and have to manage your time very well. If you want to be successful you have to be disciplined. ”
After saying, “My life hasn’t anything to do with law,” he changes the subject and begins talking about his upbringing in York, Pennsylvania, and the start of new work.
“I’m writing a play about my parents’ courtship. My dad was a country doctor in Amish and apple country. He was the quintessence of a country doctor. In the decade after World War II, they’d pay him with chicken. (He) worked his way up by working in the steel mills.
“My mom grew up in Brooklyn and really wanted to be in the theater. She was a model first, when she was 16, a very high-end model. And she wanted to become a show girl. She was in one of these theatrical boarding houses, took singing and dancing lessons. She got into ‘Hellzapoppin’ (a 1938 Broadway comedy), met my dad, and joined him to live in the army.”
He adds his parents married in a manner that would seem improbable today. “His dad and her dad had become friends and said, ‘Your boy should meet my girl,’ and in a month or two they were married. I’ve been doing a research about the home front during World War II. It wasn’t atypical and makes all the sense in the world. It was a tense time, marriages went way up.”
Looking back to the 1950s when he was a boy, Ludwig says, “I grew up in a wonderful atmosphere where everyone knew my dad, so there was this expectation that someone go into a profession. The notion to do some schooling came from my father. There was a precedent that my brother went into law.”
Ludwig first attended Haverford College in Pennsylvania before receiving as a scholarship at Harvard, where he received his law degree. “My parents said, ‘You’d be crazy not to go (to Harvard), and I recognize that it was hard to make a living in the theater. My parents gave their best advice.” The advice was matched by his family’s best practice: an annual trip to see a Broadway show.
Returning to the subject of creating the first stage version of “Murder on the Orient Express,” Ludwig is appreciative of this current act in his life and the arrangement with the Christie estate. “They came to me and a smart estate wants to say, ‘We hired the right artist’ and then stands back.”
Looking at the production team that includes Broadway veterans — scenic designer Beowulf Boritt, costumer William Ivey Long, and light designer Ken Billington — Ludwig says he’s taking a similar approach. “We have the best designers in the entire world with this. I have the best director in the world, (McCarter Theater artistic director) Emily Mann. I’m going to sit back and let them do it.”
Then sinking back in the couch, he says, “I wrote one mystery before, “The Game’s a Foot.” I don’t know if I would ever write another mystery if (the Christie estate) hadn’t come to me. I recognized what a great opportunity this was.” He then smiles.
Murder on the Orient Express, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Now in previews and opening Friday, March 17. Through Sunday, April 2. $25 to $96.50. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.