Black Death

Detective Hercule Poirot (James Black, right) and his thick-headed sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings (Todd Waite), make a funny pair.
Joel Johnson

In Black Coffee, nobody loves Sir Claud Amory (James Belcher). The eccentric old man is too stingy to engender warm feelings. He runs around in a ridiculous red-silk smoking jacket and spends all his time and money inventing weapons of mass destruction, the sort that can kill "hundreds of thousands of people." Meanwhile, his son is broke (in a wealthy-Englishman sort of way), and his extended family can't get a dime out of him. So it's not too surprising when the crotchety old geezer croaks in the drawing room after sipping a cup of black coffee at a dinner party. And when foul play is suspected, somebody's got to investigate. Enter Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (James Black). When he shows up to get to the bottom of things, Agatha Christie's classic murder mystery Black Coffee -- the first offering of the Alley Theatre's quaintly entertaining Summer Chills series -- is off and running.

Suspects abound. There's the beautiful, platinum-haired Lucia Amory (Robin Terry). She married into the family, and her biggest flaw is that she's half-Italian. Throughout the script, Christie enjoys poking fun at the British for their aversion to "foreigners," and she starts with the family's reaction to high-strung Lucia. The girl's got wild Italian blood running through her, says Miss Caroline Amory (played by a wonderfully loopy Bettye Fitzpatrick). Miss Caroline is a sweet old spinster who's taken a few too many sips from the "vitamin" bottle, as she calls it. She's a little bit sad when her brother kicks the bucket, but she can't help thinking that he kept his son Richard on too short a leash money-wise -- Richard Amory (Philip Lehl) is desperate for money. And his marriage to Lucia seems a bit frayed at the edges. For some reason, Lucia keeps melodramatically begging him to take her away, but the poor chap can't because he doesn't have enough dough. Hmm, stingy Daddy's money would be awfully handy.

The most obvious suspect is Dr. Carelli (Jeffrey Bean). He is a full-blooded foreigner, after all. And besides, nobody knows him except Lucia, and we already see how unstable that poor girl can be. Yes, indeed, it was Lucia who invited Carelli to the dinner party, and the two seem terribly familiar with each other in a vaguely murderous way. Lucia's always rushing into the library, furtively glancing over her shoulder, and Carelli's never far behind. The two have simply got to be up to something. You know how unsavory those foreigners can be.


Black Coffee

Alley Theatre, 615 Texas

Through July 18; 713-228-8421. $17

Of course, there are other folks skulking around the perimeters of the party. Naughty Barbara Amory (Elizabeth Heflin) has the audacity to smoke cigarettes, wear flaming-red lipstick and slink around in a tangerine-colored silk gown. She's got the looks of a vamp, but could she kill like one? And the stiff-backed Edward Raynor (Paul Hope) -- is he the quiet-but-deadly type?

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Only Poirot can untangle this mess, which he does by the end of the night, despite the bumblings of his amusingly thick-headed sidekick, Captain Arthur Hastings, O.B.E. (Todd Waite). The two men make a funny pair. Alley favorite Black thoroughly enjoys playing the pasty-faced Belgian detective who wears his jet-black hair combed back and his thin mustache curled. He insists, quite profoundly, that what we're witnessing is "human drama." It's this sort of hyperbole, coupled with the detective's all-around goodwill, that makes him a fine, if somewhat kooky, hero. He insists that he'll make things right and save the innocent, and sure enough, he does. It just takes a while to find out who those innocent bystanders are.

Poirot's flair for melodrama is supported by John Ambrosone's lush lighting, which gives the whole production the feel of an old '30s film. Shadows creep everywhere. The storm outside threatens darkness with every drop of rain. And just in case we forget what the old man died from, the coffee cups, which never move once the murder has happened, glitter menacingly at the end of every scene. Gregory Boyd has directed the old show with wit and energy. By Act III the production all but frolics. Act I is slowed down by too much exposition, but once the show gets rolling, the charms of the Alley company take over and make this mystery a lot of fun to solve.

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