The Alley's Black Coffee Is Quite Strong

Read our interview with Alley Artistic Director Gregory Boyd.

The set-up:

Agatha Christie's first play, from 1930, Black Coffee, introduced the Belgian crime-solver Hercule Poirot, and the Alley Theatre has brought it to life for the annual Summer Chills tradition of mystery plays.

The execution:

The set is elegant, decorated with modern art and a huge, deep-rose Oriental carpet covering most of the attractive slate floor. This is the library of Sir Claud Amory, noted British physicist; it has remarkably few books, but perhaps Sir Claud wasn't much of a reader. French doors lead to a garden, and there are three interior doors -- suitable for slamming, or for tiptoeing through for nefarious purposes. And, more than likely, another character will be hidden somewhere in that library to surprise the culprit.

The plot? Sir Claud 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 Claud 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 professional confidence, conveying a keen sense of a brilliant mind seething with energy as he unravels the lies and deceits that come so naturally to the British upper-classes.

A key role is Sir Claud's daughter-in-law, Lucia, played by Laura E. Campbell, who is blonde and beautiful and wears clothes like a super-model with brains. She is warm and appealing and, along with Black, a pillar of strength in the production, as is Todd Waite as Arthur Hastings, Poirot's assistant - Waite turns what might have been a caricature into a warm, interesting human, though compelled, of course, to be a bit of a bumbler. The director, Alley's Artistic Director Gregory Boyd, certainly steered these actors toward compelling performances, and I admired how Black and Waite managed to make pressing a button to summon a butler seem urgent and exciting. And occasional thunder and lightning served the same purpose, even with no plot connection.

Other roles were smaller, but the actors managed to make the most of them. Alley stalwart Jeffrey Bean, who played Salieri in Amadeus last year, 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 very well. Sir Claude's sister is played by Jennifer Harmon, and she adds a poised stage presence and some delightful tipsy humor. Josie de Guzman plays Sir Claude's niece, and with adroit hip-swiveling and a generous giddy smile generates sex appeal and adds considerable interest (and yes, this is integral to the plot). Alley veteran James Belcher, who is so brilliant as Scrooge, here creates a vivid Inspector Japp, as well as playing a very different role as Sir Claude before his demise.

The scenic design by Linda Buchanan and the costume design by Tricia Barsamian are effective and attractive. We have to thank Dame Agatha for creating Monsieur Poirot, and Miss Marple, and helping to make the mystery genre such an important mainstay of our entertainment. Yet the genre has gone on to surpass a vehicle such as this, and today we expect more vivid characters, more humor, and more surprises than we are given here.

The verdict:

A mystery play hoary with age is given fresh, triumphant life in a vibrant production, as gifted actors carry it on their talented shoulders.

Black Coffee continues through August 5 at Alley Theatre, 615 Texas St. For ticketing or information, call 713-220-5700 or visit the company website.

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Jim Tommaney