Considering myself heretofore well-read, I am thankful that Clayton Community Theatre offered me a chance for redemption. I would finally be able to say that I knew the work of "The Grand Dame of Mysteries."
Directed by Nada Vaughn, "Black Coffee" is a lengthy undertaking. The play consists of three acts, each lasting nearly 45 minutes. In the first act, we are introduced to the Amory family, among whom there is little love. The patriarch, Sir Claude (Matthew Linquist), is an accomplished physicist, and has recently composed a formula for an explosive device of tremendous power. There are those who covet this formula, family and colleagues, and by the end of the act, Sir Claude is dead, the formula is missing...and suspects abound. The most prominent suspect is daughter-in-law Lucia (Gislaine Angieri, who seems always to be at the edge of a melodramatic breakdown). There is the erratic Dr. Carelli (Joe Wegescheide), Sir Claude's son Richard (Preston Murchison), his niece Barbara (played with spot-on merriment by Marlene Rene Coveyou), his secretary Edward Raynor (Ethan Jones), and of course, his maid, Tredwell (Beth Kuppinger). Who could have offed the man of the house?
Enter Hercule Poirot! (The exclamation is often a prideful self-reference) Though initially called to solve the crime of the missing formula, he (Chuck Winning) now has a murder mystery to piece together in an orderly and dust-free fashion. It is clear that Winning enjoys the role of Poirot, as he deftly moves about the stage, suave in both movement and speech. I found myself being drawn into the mystery of the murdered man, even through some of the more dull moments of exposition and interaction.
Unfortunately, my attention wandered a bit much as other members of the cast took the stage. I should say that I found Christie's writing to be a bit bogged down and stiff at times. It needs a bit of help from the actors. The pacing of the play depends on a lively and razor sharp delivery, and many times this is lacking. The main culprit: slushy pronunciation of unclear dialects. Black Coffee is set in England. The Amory Family are an upper-class British lot. Dr. Carelli is referred to, consistently, as Italian. Thrown into the mix is some Scotland Yard brouge, and a very French/Belgian Poirot. Wegescheide as Carelli would occasionally lapse into some dialect (I am no expert, and I could not discern which), and the Scots traveled through by way of New Jersey. Only Winning's Poirot was truly consistent with his use of dialect, but it was very rich indeed. At one point during dialog with Angieri, I mistook the name of the city Genoa for "Jaguar" for several moments, then my good sense figured it out!
As I mentioned, pacing is essential to make this mystery feel urgent (A man is dead! A formula for a weapon of mass destruction is missing!), but I rarely felt immersed in the action.
Though Angieri's facial expressions oozed anguish, and the audience was occasionally pandered to (Poirot's assistant Sir Hastings, played with plenty of mugging by Brad Kinzel), and simpered for (by Sir Claude's sister Miss Caroline Armory (Mary Klein), I never felt as if I were being lured into a true Whodunit.
I think that CCT's "Black Coffee" could be much improved by playing for an audience of some size – a sounding board that would laugh in all of the right places and invigorate the actors. Because that is what this mystery needs, a strong jolt of caffeine with a steady flavor to keep those dialects in line. My first impression of Agatha Christie's work missed a few of the marks for me, but with some tweaking, could very well be my cup of tea.
Clayton Community Theatre conitinues Agatha Christie's "Black Coffee" January 27 and 28 at 8 p.m. and January 29 at 2 p.m. For more information please visit www.placeseveryone.org