Theater review: ‘Black Coffee’ packs little jolt

By Kerry Clawson
Beacon Journal staff writer

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Holly Humes and Ross Rhodes in Coach House Theatre's Black Coffee. (Scott Custer photo)

Black Coffee is a snoozer as far as Agatha Christie murder mysteries are concerned.

Coach House Theatre is presenting the 1930 work, which was Christie’s first piece written for the stage, as part of an annual Agatha Christie tradition that has grown for more than 20 years. Yet unlike so many of Christie’s thoroughly satisfying whodunits, this early stage effort carries very little intrigue, no shifting alliances or elaborate ruses among characters, and a dearth of great plot twists.

For those counting on multiple, unforeseen twists and turns from Christie, Black Coffee comes across as a relic. When Christie wrote the play her own agents reportedly told her to forget about it. It was nevertheless produced in London in 1930 and published in 1934, but The Times said of the stage premiere “there are times when it’s perilously near the doldrums.’’

The play seemed to drop off the map for decades as Christie cranked out some 20 popular stage plays. Black Coffee was converted into a novel in 1998, 22 years after Christie’s death. The work’s stage revival in England and the United States followed early in the new millennium.

At Coach House, director Andrew Cruse has assembled a talented cast led by Ross Rhodes as inspector Hercule Poirot, Holly Humes as Lucia Amory (with Melanie Korman Roddy alternating in the role), Tess Burgler as Barbara Amory and Derrick Winger as Richard Amory. Unfortunately, they don’t have much of a story to work with and the play’s pacing is uncomfortably languid in the first act.

Famed physicist Sir Claud Amory is hosting a get-together with friends and family when he discovers his newly developed formula for an atomic weapon has been stolen. He locks everyone in the library to uncover the thief but within minutes, he has died from poisoned coffee.

The wily and meticulous inspector Hercule Poirot, one of Christie’s most famous characters, arrives on the scene too late and must now unravel a murder. (The Pink Panther’s eccentric Inspector Jacques Clouseau, with his wacky French accent, was inspired by Christie’s Poirot character.)

As the dapper Belgian detective in spats, Coach House newcomer Rhodes carries the show by creating the most human characterization. Poirot has a sixth sense when it comes to both the innocent and those with murderous motives. He is most likable when he treats Lucia with kindness and promises to be her protector.

Jim Fippin creates a humorous partnership as Poirot’s bumbling sidekick, Capt. Arthur Hastings. Fippin elicits laughs with his physical comedy bumping into Poirot and later, as Barbara is wooing him. Tess Burgler is teasing and vivacious as Barbara but her British accent sounds odd.

On opening night Friday, Humes created a believably agitated Lucia Amory, who is harboring a secret. But Christie’s back story for Lucia is shallow and contrived.

Only a couple of characters appear to have a real motive, and an exceeding amount of time is spent building up suspects that seem way too obvious. Christie also writes a number of jokes at the expense of foreigners that fall flat.

The play’s library set, designed by Terry Burgler with props by Nancy Cates, is elegantly conceived, with a bevy of artwork and knickknacks that includes 11 clocks.

In the end, this production offers a mildly entertaining evening. But the work isn’t likely to rank high on the favorites list for Christie fans.

Arts writer Kerry Clawson may be reached at 330-996-3527 or kclawson@thebeaconjournal.com.


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