When she penned her first play Black Coffee in 1930, Agatha Christie thought of it as "a conventional spy thriller...full of cliches, it was, I think, not at all bad". It set the tone for such later stage masterpieces as The Mousetrap, Ten Little Indians, and Witness for the Prosecution, and contains many of Christie's signature conventions of the murder-mystery 'whodunnit' genre: a mysterious death, suspicious characters, misleading clues, and a skillful detective who sorts things out at the end.
In Black Coffee, now playing at the Faulkner University Dinner Theatre, the detective is the famous Belgian, Hercule Poirot, whose 'little grey cells' work overtime to unravel the machinations of Christie's plot.
Eminent physicist Sir Claud Amory [Morgan Baker] has summoned Poirot to his country estate to unmask the person in his household who stole a valuable formula for a powerful explosive that could kill countless thousands at a time. -- Having locked all the doors to prevent escape, Sir Claud dies before Poirot [Ben Cardiff] and his companion Hastings [Hunter Smith] arrive, setting in motion a complicated series of events that cast suspicion on virtually everyone there.
Someone in the house must have put the poison in his coffee, and each one has at least some reason to be suspected: his son Richard [Blake Williams] needs money; his daughter-in-law Lucia [Amber Rigby] is clearly distraught and probably hiding some secret; his sister Caroline [Emily Woodring] is in denial about a lot of things; his niece Barbara [Alex Rikerd] seems indifferent to his death; his confidential secretary Edwina Raynor [ Mattie Earls] drinks heavily and skulks around a lot; and Dr. Carelli [Ian Bruce] is a foreigner from Italy who showed up out of nowhere and obviously frightens Lucia.
With housemaid Tredwell [Catherine Allbritton] running errands and filling in a few gaps for Poirot's benefit, Dr. Graham [Hannah Darrough] to verify a murder by poisoning, and Scotland Yard's Inspector Japp [Colby Smith] and Constable Johnson [Emily McAliley] to arrest the culprit at the end, Christie fans will have a field day with director Jason Clark South's production.
There is a lot of exposition in the play that the acting ensemble do their best to make dramatically interesting, and once that is accomplished, attention is firmly on Poirot's ability to furrow out and bring the guilty party to justice. [No revelations here; half the fun for the audience is to try to figure out the identity of the murderer by sifting through the numerous 'red herrings' Christie puts in their way.]
Mr. Cardiff, with several nods to mannerisms of actor David Suchet in Masterpiece Theatre's Poirot, holds things in reserve till appropriate revelatory moments, furthering the suspense for audience enjoyment; and Mr. Smith's sidekick Hastings is a good foil to Mr. Cardiff's prissy neatness.
The rest of the cast turn in credible characterizations with acceptable English accents, and manage to bring suspicion on themselves. Of special note: Ms. Rigby's nervous anxiety is always truthful, and Mr. Williams' contradictory behavior is spot-on. Mr. Bruce's arrogance as Dr. Carelli reeks of self-assurance. And Ms. Rikerd's depiction of Barbara is perhaps the most comfortable and nuanced performance in this production.
Staged on a finely detailed set by Mr. South and Matt Dickson [one that would benefit from higher walls to accentuate the stateliness of Sir Claud's mansion], and with Tatyana Thompson's character-driven period-looking costumes, Black Coffee will keep audiences guessing till almost the last minute, so the two-hour and fifteen-minute running time passes very quickly.