Art Attack got together with Alley Theatre Artistic Director Gregory Boyd as he and his troops get ready to put on another of their Summer Chills series, this time turning to a play featuring Agatha Christie's famous detective Hercule Poirot, who attempts to solve the murder of Sir Claud Amory.
Art Attack: What made you decide to do a Hercule Poirot story this time? When was the last time you picked him from the lineup of Agatha Christie plays?
GB: Agatha Christie wrote a dozen or so plays, but this one, her first, is the only one with Hercule Poirot in it. Even when she later adapted a Poirot novel of hers for the theater (Death on the Nile, for example), she would eliminate Poirot. "He did his stuff pretty well in the novels, but when it came to the theatre, I cut him out." She grew to be a bit like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, I think -- a bit of a love/hate thing for your own genius creation. And that's why this play, Black Coffee, is unique -- the only time she herself ever put Poirot onstage.
AA: According to some sources, Christie wrote Black Coffee after being disappointed in a play adaptation of a mystery she'd written about Hercule Poirot -- which then launched her career as a playwright. What do you think she brought to the understanding of Poirot onstage that had been missing?
GB: She had seen an adaptation of her novel The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (the adaptation was called Alibi) which featured Poirot, but adapted by another author. The young Charles Laughton (!) played Poirot -- and she hated it. So she vowed that she would write an original play with Poirot as the lead. And it was her first play -- and it's quite wonderful. She is an amazing, misunderstood, I think, playwright. First time at bat, and she hits a home run.
AA: Do you think a lot of idiosyncratic detectives in modern fiction take their lead from Hercule Poirot's character? That you can be a genius in a peculiar way?
GB: Poirot is one of the great fictional detectives of all time, no question -- idiosyncratic, brilliant, very odd, very alone (except for Hastings, his sidekick). He tends to take over, and her other plays are so concerned with the interplay of characters; she felt that Hercule Poirot overwhelmed the situation with the force of his personality. It's much like the renaissance of interest in Sherlock Holmes (the BBC series, the Downey films, the new U.S. TV series Elementary, etc.) -- the problem is that the detective character takes over from the case in a way, and she was always more interested in the other characters, as her playwriting developed.
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AA: Why do Houston audiences so like your Summer Chills experience?
GB: I think the audiences love to match their minds with hers. She always plays fair -- she shows the audience all the necessary clues and behaviors and she is utterly scrupulous about her plots and the fairness of the mystery -- and audiences love, absolutely love, the challenge of watching that unfold in real time in front of them. It's thrilling, in the best sense of the word.
And, like I did when I was a young theater-goer at ten years old at her plays, it's great fun to see if you yourself can try to puzzle it out. We get lots of repeaters -- audience members who will see it several times, just for the sheer enjoyment of watching her reverse-engineer these marvelous puzzles. And she has great humor, and great humanity. And justice always wins out. It's very gratifying. And it's gratifying for us to watch the audience watch these plays. They lean in -- they don't want to miss a moment.
Agatha Christie's Black Coffee begins performances Saturday, July 7, opens officially Sunday, July 8, and runs through Sunday, August 5, on the Hubbard Stage of the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas. It stars Alley Theatre resident actor James Black as Hercule Poirot and Jeffrey Bean as Dr. Carelli, James Belcher as Sir Claud Amory/Inspector Japp, Paul Hope as Edward Raynor, Chris Hutchison as Dr. Graham, and Todd Waite as Captain Arthur Hastings, O.B.E. It also features Laura E. Campbell as Lucia Amory, David Gorena as Johnson, Josie de Guzman as Barbara Amory, Jennifer Harmon as Miss Caroline Amory, Joe Kirkendall as Tredwell, and Jay Sullivan as Richard Amory. For ticket information, call 713.220.5700 or go to the theater's Web site.