Clever Dame

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.

Imagine my dismay, then, to have sat through the overwrought, bloodless and boring plays that make up the Absolute's second show, Three One Acts, an evening of works by three Houston playwrights. The first installment is Holly Hildebrand's Casket Letters, which plays like a Harlequin romance novel that's been run over by a Mack truck. Featuring the highly dysfunctional love/abuse relationship of Mary and James, the play seems to be reaching for parody. When he's not hitting Mary, James bellows about how he doesn't have any beer. When he's out of the room, Mary writes lines full of flowery sentiment and sexual metaphor that she keeps in a silk letter casket. Of this play's many flaws, perhaps the most inexplicable is why a woman such as Mary would be with James. Jennifer Black, as Mary, is suitably histrionic, but neither she nor her fellow actor, Orvis Melvin, seem to have any sense of what their relationship, or the play, is about. Imagine a trailer-trash man and an earnest freshman-English-major woman. Now put them in a room together. It doesn't work. It didn't work on-stage either.

Still, it's better than Diana Weeks' A Little Lite Larceny (Part II), the evening's low point. Set in the '70s corporate world, Larceny opens with Lynn, a young secretary who's interviewing for a position with Dave, a man who thinks dogs and potential employees should be talked to the same way. "Come in," he barks at Mary. "Close the door. Sit down." Whatever potential there may have been for dramatic tension between this smart young character and her pig of a would-be boss is destroyed by Weeks' sappy tangents. Mary didn't go to college on a scholarship because, she says, her father thought it was too much like charity; her mother died when she was young. It gets much, much worse. In the play's second scene, Lynn and her co-worker Leslie talk about sexual politics, breast cancer, alcoholism, Hitler's Germany and childbearing with no sense of direction, purpose or story. It was the longest 30 minutes I've spent in the theater in a great while. I've been more entertained watching corn grow. In fact, some corn would have greatly improved this pedantic piece.

The evening's final installment is Elizabeth Gilbert's Transmigration of Existence. The title and subject matter (Transmigration is about the culture of cancer victims; ugh) didn't give me hope, but Gilbert's bio -- she's written several plays -- did. Her one-act is cleverly fitted with devices such as a dictionary toting alter-ego for the main character, Veronica, and a sassy nurse played by Jennifer Black. Not only does Veronica have cancer, she also has the image of Jesus mysteriously inscribed somewhere in the vicinity of her cervix. This makes her hot property, and Gilbert hits the ball as far as she can, shuttling our girl around from stirrups to an audience with the Pope. Self-revelation through disease isn't a new idea, but Gilbert has the ability to play with the cards at hand: a patriarchal medical profession, a loss of self and illness as a metaphor for morality. Still, as the play winds around the developing cancer and the circus that has been made out of Veronica's cervix, there's a sense that we've been in this play before. Though it's competently written and well performed, there's nothing surprising or even particularly delightful about Transmigration. And the modified "it was all just a dream" ending is a cheap trick.

The purpose of fitting these three plays together in one evening, the program indicates, was to showcase the work of local female playwrights. Only one of three makes the cut as a dramatist, and I'm not at all convinced that Transmigration of Existence is the play that best represents Gilbert's ability. If the people behind Absolute want to produce good theater, they'd be much better off continuing in the vein of their first production rather than chasing down new work that tries to dress up contemporary issues in dramatic clothing.

Black Coffee plays through July 7 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 228-8421

Three One Acts plays through July 7 at the Absolute Theatre, 813 Richmond
Avenue, 921-7469

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Megan Halverson