Ken Ludwig is ubiquitous. He’s in Hartford. He’s in New Haven. He’s on a train. His game is afoot.
Ludwig’s one of the most popular playwrights in the world today. This month, two major Connecticut theaters are loading up with Ludwig works. First up is his lighthearted new adaptation of Agatha Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” running through March 25 at Hartford Stage.
Then comes “Baskerville,” Ludwig’s freewheeling take on the Sherlock Holmes adventure “The Hound of the Baskervilles” at the Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven Feb. 28 through March 25.
Hundreds of productions of Ludwig’s plays happen every year. The most popular are his backstage-at-an-opera-house farce “Lend Me a Tenor” and his backstage-at-a-summer-stock-theater romantic comedy “Moon Over Buffalo.”
“I love the theater,” Ludwig declares in recent phone interview. “I grew up in a farming town in Pennsylvania. There was no professional theater there. At some point, when I was 10 years old, I put theater on a pedestal. I adored it. When I started writing plays, I made many of them about the theater, because I adored it so. Everything is great in the theater. Everybody is great in the theater.”
The playwright is also fond of a certain period of history: the 1930s. He evokes that era in “Lend Me a Tenor”; “Moon Over Buffalo,’” which is set in 1953 but hearkens back to the heyday of summer stock; the country club comedy “Fox on the Fairway”; his adaptation of the 1932 Broadway hit “Twentieth Century”; and his Gershwin-scored musical “Crazy for You,” which just underwent a workshop for a likely Broadway revival.
Connecticut theatergoers can’t help but notice that he shifted the timeline of his comic mystery “The Game’s Afoot” (which you could have seen last year at the Ivoryton Playhouse and the Warner Theatre in Torrington) to the 1930s, when the 1920s would be a more appropriate time period for the show’s real-life lead character William Gillette (who died in 1936) and setting (Gillette Castle in East Haddam, built in the 19-teens).
“The 1920s feels like ancient history to us,” Ludwig argues. “The ‘30s is a glamorous period.”
Christie’s “Murder on the Orient Express” was first published in 1934. It takes place on a luxurious passenger train that came to the opulence and intrigue of Europe in the time between the two world wars.
Another common theme you can find in Ludwig’s work: mystery. “My mother was a mystery fan,” Ludwig says. “I got it from her.”
There’s one more shared trait in Ken Ludwig works: “I always write comedies. I define myself as a comic playwright.” Yet he’s not always the same kind of comic playwright. “Murder on the Orient Express” is a train full of colorful characters, and requires a cast of 12. “Baskerville,” though it has dozens of roles, makes do with just five actors; a lot of the comedy comes from quick costume changes.
Ludwig’s worked in many other comic styles as well. He’s adapted George Farquhar’s 1707 romp “The Beaux Stratagem” (reworking an unfinished adaptation by Thornton Wilder), Mark Twain’s “Tom Sawyer” (for a Broadway musical which had a try-out run at New Haven’s Shubert theater in 2001), Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” (“Tiny Tim’s Christmas Carol”) and the legend of Robin Hood. He’s done romantic comedies, screwball comedies, backstage comedies and farces. He’s updated Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” to contemporary New Jersey (for “Midsummer/Jersey”) and inserted two of its characters, Oberon and Puck, into 1930s Hollywood in “Shakespeare in Hollywood.”
“The comic form, ethos, mood is where I live,” Ludwig says. “I love Shakespeare comedies. I love Restoration comedies. These are the plays that make by heart beat faster. They make me happy. They make me think. They touch me and move me.”
“Mysteries and comedies,” Ludwig explains, “have things in common. They have the same structure, the same basic shape. They both create a status quo, which then falls apart. That instability is important, how the process resolves itself.”
The great detective Sherlock Holmes — who bounds through “Baskerville” and is referenced throughout “The Game’s Afoot” and another Ludwig mystery, “Postmortem” — interests Ludwig because “I love theatrical things.”
“Murder on the Orient Express” came about, the playwright says, “in a completely different way. I got a call from the Agatha Christie estate saying ‘We’re really going to spread our wings.’” He was offered the chance to adapt any of the novelist’s books he chose.
“I immediately thought of ‘Murder on the Orient Express.’ I suggested that one, and they said ‘Go for it.’”
The show premiered last year at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, N.J.. “I’ve worked there before,” Ludwig says, “and I know Emily Mann” — the theater’s artistic director and the director of “Murder on the Orient Express.” “The McCarter’s become a real home to me. It’s intellectual, it’s artistic and it’s really well run.”
Hartford Stage took note of the New Jersey premiere and thought “Murder on the Orient Express” would help balance the theater’s 2017-18 season. “Murder on the Orient Express” is a big splashy comedy that, though not a musical, has the heft and humor of recent Hartford Stage offerings like “Kiss Me Kate” or “The Comedy of Errors.”
Ludwig considers the Hartford Stage production to be “the same production” as was at the McCarter. “It has the same design team.” There was an attempt to bring back as many of the cast members as possible, though new actors had to be enlisted to play such key roles as Inspector Hercule Poirot, Countess Andrenyi and the double role of Colonel Arbuthnot and Samuel Ratchett.
In Hartford, Poirot will be David Pittu. The rest of the cast includes Veanne Cox as Princess Dragomiroff, Maboud Ebrahimzadeh as Michel/Marcel, Julie Halston as Helen Hubbard, Susannah Hoffman as Mary Debenham, Charles Mihaliak as Army Officer/Porter, Jordan Schmidt and Meghan Pratt alternating as the child Daisy Armstrong, Samantha Steinmetz as Greta Ohlsson, Evan Zes as Monsieur Bouc, Juha Sorola as Hector MacQueen, Leigh Ann Larkin as the Countess and Ian Bedford as Arbuthnot/Ratchett. Most of these characters are suspects in the crime that gives the play its name.
If you’ve read the book or seen either of the two star-studded movie versions of “Murder on the Orient Express” (the 1974 one that starred Albert Finney as Poirot, or the chilly one from last year which both starred and was directed by Kenneth Branagh) you already know whodunit. Fear not. Your enjoyment of the play should not be spoiled. Style counts for a lot.
Ludwig was involved in the casting for both the McCarter and Hartford Stage. He’s been attending some of the rehearsals in Hartford and touching up the script. While helping “Murder on the Orient Express” on its journey (which inevitably includes consideration of a Broadway run), Ludwig continues to write. Just days ago he finished a play about British theater titan David Garrick and the Shakespearean Jubilee he produced in 1769. There’s a reading in March of his “Gods of Comedy,” about Greek deities who show up unexpectedly to help a modern-day academic, and another reading that month as well, which Ludwig will direct himself, of “a two-hander about my parents.”
He compares the rewriting process to carpentry: “I’m sort of sanding it here, shortening a leg there, getting the back of it a little stronger. That’s why they call it a playwright, as in ‘wrought.’ I make things. I’m a craftsman.”
AGATHA CHRISTIE’S MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS, adapted for the stage by Ken Ludwig and directed by Emily Mann, runs through March 25 at Hartford Stage, 50 Church St., Hartford. Performances are Tuesday through Thursday at 7:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m.; and Sunday at 2 p.m.; with added 2 p.m. matinees on Feb. 24 and 28 and March 10 and 17. Tickets are $25 to $90. 860-527-5151 and hartfordstage.org.
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that the show has been extended to March 25.