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Clever Dame

Agatha Christie dabbles in more than Black Coffee

Despite her enormous popularity as a writer, Agatha Christie has never been a favorite of the intellectuals. Christie fans claim this has nothing to do with the quality of her work, and everything to do with the genre she worked in: mystery stories simply don't have much highbrow status. The Alley, though, doesn't fall into the trap of being dismissive, which is one reason its production of Christie's Black Coffee piques more than a passing interest -- the company recognizes that the work deals, however subtly, with questions of colonialism, and with the strange power of drugs and science.

The plot of Black Coffee comes from Christie's short story "The Submarine Plans," and was adapted in 1934. It was her earliest adaptation, and Christie paid attention to clarity, brevity and humor -- characteristics she prized in plays. The result is a parlor mystery in three acts into which the endearing Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, arrives to solve the mystery of a murdered scientist and a missing secret formula. Set shortly after the first World War, Black Coffee takes place in Sir Claud Amory's grand estate upon his discovery that his secret formula for a nuclear weapon has been stolen from his study safe.

As is always the case in murder mysteries, there are a number of subplots that confuse the theft: Sir Amory's son, Richard, has a troubled marriage and is deeply in debt, and Dr. Carelli, an unexpected Italian house guest, has recently arrived, much to the dismay of Richard's wife, Lucia. Sir Claud decides the only way to find his formula is to lock all of the house guests in the library until someone coughs it up. This includes his sister, Miss Caroline Amory; his niece, the flirtatious Barbara Amory; his secretary, Edward Raynor; and Richard, Lucia and Dr. Carelli.

The intrigue starts with a box of drugs Miss Caroline brought back from the war, which is somberly examined by Dr. Carelli, who pronounces one vial deadly enough to kill 12 people -- a small contrast, of course, to the nuclear weapon Sir Claud has promised will kill tens of thousands in future wars. There is a distinct theme in Black Coffee that has to do with misgivings about foreigners. Christie is not unaware of colonial ironies -- though the British divide and conquer smaller or less organized countries, their fear of those countries' inhabitants, and their strange drugs, often conquers the colonialists. Everyone suspects Dr. Carelli of being the thief who stole the formula: his arrival visibly upset Lucia, and he is, of course, an out-of-towner.

By the end of the first act, Sir Claud is dead in his overstuffed chair and Poirot is just arriving. The mood is tense, and Poirot's arrival provides a necessary moment of humor and relief -- James Black has the fastidious detective down marvelously. Always a bit arrogant, easily amused and neurotic about order, Black is the center of this tight production, pulling threads this way and that, eventually weaving together the truth. There are slow moments while we get the history of the situation from Caroline, and while various characters sneak in and out of the library, but for the most part, this is an elegant presentation. An especially nice touch is a scene set to the music of a ticking clock in which the characters say nothing, but shift their stately positions around the library in a manner reminiscent of a courtly dance.

The humor (and humor is a central part of Christie's charm) comes almost entirely from Black's Poirot, and from his somewhat slower assistant, Captain Arthur Hastings (John Feltch). Shelley Williams is dangerously sexy as Barbara, and Bettye Fitzpatrick balances out her heavy duty as the matron of exposition with a convincing ability to play drunk as Caroline. It's difficult to say too much about a mystery without giving the pleasure of discovery away, but what Black Coffee offers is meatier than the average whodunit: everyone in the play is manipulated or corrupted by the mysterious box of drugs. Christie's use of the drugs as a parallel for the evils of nuclear physics is an interesting one, though it's never completely fleshed out. On the surface, just like in her mysteries, Christie might be dismissed as a facile puzzler. But that conclusion would be as premature as an early guess about the identity of the murderer. What the Alley's production of Black Coffee points out is how deeply this writer's largely ignored political material (xenophobia, nuclear physics, narcotics) resonates.

"Resonates" isn't the word that comes to mind when describing the Absolute Theatre's current show, unfortunately. "Disappoints" is more like it. When the Absolute Theatre opened its season earlier this month with a repertory evening of Beckett and Pinter, I developed some high hopes for the fledgling company. Founded by Steve Spurgat, a University of Houston graduate (and student of Edward Albee, who acted as an unofficial advisor when the Absolute Theatre developed its space behind Chapultepec Mexican Restaurant), the Absolute was taking a chance with Beckett and Pinter, playwrights too seldom tackled in American theater because they actually demand an ability to think. And the risk paid off. That first production was a masterful and provocative night of theater.

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