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Black Coffee Agatha Christie's first play, Black Coffee, from 1930, introduced the Belgian crime-solver Hercule Poirot, and the Alley brings it to life for the annual Summer Chills tradition of mystery plays. Sir Claude has invented a weapon of mass destruction, but the formula has been pilfered, and he has asked M. Poirot to solve the theft. Poirot arrives too late, as Sir Claude has drunk the coffee served him, and gone to his heavenly reward. James Black plays M. Poirot and is excellent, creating a memorable characterization filled with dry humor, and conveying a keen sense of a brilliant mind seething with energy. Sir Claude's daughter-in-law, Lucia, is played by Laura E. Campbell, who is blonde and beautiful and wears clothes like a super-model; she is warm and appealing. Todd Waite as Arthur Hastings, Poirot's assistant, turns what might have been a caricature into a warm, interesting human. The director, Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd, certainly steers these actors toward compelling performances. Alley stalwart Jeffrey Bean portrays Dr. Carelli, but has little to do except look slightly sinister. Jay Sullivan plays Sir Claude's son, who must look anxious and be a bit of a hothead, and he does that well. Sir Claude's sister is played by Jennifer Harmon, who adds a poised stage presence and some delightful tipsy humor, while Josie de Guzman, as Sir Claude's niece, generates sex appeal and adds humor and interest. Alley veteran James Belcher creates a vivid Inspector Japp, as well as playing Sir Claude. Scenic design by Linda Buchanan and costume design by Tricia Barsamian are effective and attractive. A mystery play hoary with age is given fresh, triumphant life in a vibrant production, as gifted actors carry it on their talented shoulders. Through August 5. Alley Theatre, 615 Texas St., 713-220-5700. -JJT

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